Pilot program shows promise, but not for every student

Increasing the number of students receiving a high school diploma has been a focus for high schools for years, and for just as long, summer school had been one of the primary weapons in their arsenal for getting kids back on track. It may be a dirty word to students, but recovering credits over the summer has been the method most often employed.

However, there have long been concerns that the model, based on hours in chairs rather than actual knowledge, wasn’t really an effective means of helping students, nor did it necessarily provide any guarantees of increased knowledge or education. This summer, a new program was put together and piloted at Windsor High School for the purpose testing out whether requiring “mastery” rather than just seat time, was a more useful and feasible idea.

“We actually just cooked up this idea and ran it as an experimental pilot school this summer,” said Director of Educational Services Lisa Saxon. “In the mastery-based program kids have to demonstrate proficiency with standards via challenge tests and they can do that whenever offered. In a seat time summer school program, they have to be in a seat 12 hours to earn one credit, so 60 hours total to earn a full class credit.)”

In mastery-based programs, students take challenge tests to track progress and achievement; they can learn from anywhere (thanks to the use of Odyssey software in addition to in-class time) and can earn more credits.

This summer they ran one math and two English sections with a total of 155 students, the majority of students were from the 11th grade, though all levels were represented.

Josh Baca, a WHS math teacher, ran the math section for 47 students. According to Baca, of those 47, 38 completed the course to recover credit from Math 1 and moved on to Math 2 this fall. Five of the students quit the program, choosing to retake Math 1 during the regular school year, and four had to be removed from the program for discipline issues. Eleven students earned 10 credits, 14 earned between five and eight credits and four earned three credits. The English section run by Davon Godwin and Joe Stadum housed 71 students, with two earning 10 credits, 62 earning five credits and seven earning three credits.

The upsides of the program are a rapid pace and test of true mastery. For example, in Baca’s math section, there were several students who have failed the first semester of Math 1, but not the second. Those students were able to move rapidly through the material from only the portion they had failed, and as a result had fully restored credit in two weeks and did not have to keep attending summer school. Similarly, Godwin stated that some English students had fully recovered their credit in three weeks.

Saxon said two downsides to the program are cost and expense (because summer school does not generate revenue), at a time when the district is trying to tighten its belt, and the pace of the course work, which isn’t suitable or workable for all students. (In math, for example, they covered a chapter a day). “For some kids it works really well, it’s just what they needed,” she said. “But for others—our English Learners or those with IEP or 504 plans—the pace is too much for them. It’s not a good fit or a good model.”

In addition, teachers and Saxon reported that there was some clear confusion for parents and students as to what was expected in the program, and that should it go forward, clear policies around tardies and absences need to be determined.

Saxon said the impetus for creating a new and more robust program came from a presentation about the number of WHS students who were failing math, and while this model shows promise, she hasn’t lost sight of the more ideal situation. “The bigger question is how can we get more students to pass the first time around so it’s not needed,” she said. “How can we do better first instruction and build interventions into the school day? Then, for students who continue to need it, if we can afford it, do we want to continue this model?”

The answer for now seem to be yes. “In a very short amount of time some really good work went into designing the program, it was very experimental,” she said. “There were some pleasant surprises as a result. We got enough robust data that it feels like a replicable model if funding allows. We saw enough success with kids who did respond well to feel we are onto something and that it’s worth pursuing if can afford it. But, it’s still best to have them pass in the school year.”

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