Motivating reluctant and at-risk learners in the high-pressure accountability age is an ongoing and vexing challenge for many districts. While easy fixes are hard to come by, the firm ResulTech is showing success at schools created for reluctant learners using data generated by a research center in Maine.
One of those schools is the Accelerated Learning Academy (ALA) in Chester, Pennsylvania, a school for at-risk youngsters in grades 6-12. In its first year, 2008-2009, 48 students earned high school diplomas, 85 percent of whom were reclaimed dropouts. Another 80 percent of the students earned enough credits to move ahead one grade level.
Pat Wright, the senior project manager for the school, cites the blending of rigor and relevance, as well as relationship-building, as part of the reason for the schools success in its inaugural year. Every day we say, We have to think of a way to get them [students] to come back tomorrow, Wright noted. If you dont have the environment and relationships, the chance of success diminishes.
School districts contract with ResulTech to operate programs for at-risk students. I think we apply a critical mass of strategies and approaches systemically, said Michael Muir of ResulTech and director of the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning (McMEL). Among the functions of McMEL is to disseminate professional development information, articles, and links to resources to school systems. Our approach is kind of a blend of the research that came out of McMEL, our collective experience as educators, and providing services through ResulTech. We're especially careful to build our schools for at-risk and [potential] dropouts around the research-based needs of these students.
The academy and other ResulTech programs have helped students reclaim their education by creating positive school atmospheres and solid staff-student relationships, said Wright, a former high school English teacher and principal. We take time during the intake to look at students as individuals, he said. Many say, No one really knew me, at the traditional school.
About 100 percent of the students came to the school over-aged and under-credentialed, according to Wright. Many of the high-school students were frustrated because they had so few credits that they did not think they could make up enough ground to graduate within the time limit. Some 17-year-olds still were classified as freshmen. For kids who are overage, there are few opportunities to catch up. After one year at ALA, students improved from a 33 percent pass rate at their old schools to an 87 percent pass rate.
Staff members at ALA monitor each students progress daily. The school also employs a full-time data coach who reviews what students are doing, what challenges they are facing, and schedules meeting with staff members. We work with data in a pro-active manner to make adjustments to instruction as data suggests, Wright told Education World. If a student has a problem with math concepts, we need to get to that student promptly.
The biggest hurdle most ALA students must clear on the way to academic success is a literacy deficit, according to Wright. Many entered the academy reading four or five years below grade level. Some sixth graders could not even recognize the sound a letter makes. The more quickly we can bring students up to a point where they can read and comprehend, the more progress they will make, he noted. When they reach a plateau of comprehension, we can introduce higher concepts.
The problem with reading programs in some school districts is that the programs are implemented without enough emphasis on professional development for using the material effectively, he added.
Another strategy to increase student engagement is to assign each student a laptop to use during school hours. About 60 whose life circumstances prevent them from daily school attendance are allowed to take the laptops home to work. We set up a system so they can come to the building two out of five days -- other days they are working virtually, Wright said. For families who dont have computers at home, the staff helps them locate computers in the community that students can use. Parents have really bent over backward to make that resource available, Wright noted.
The school building also was designed to be inviting. Students can see that the technology and furniture were carefully selected and a lot of planning went into the school design. They know it is a special place -- not just somewhere they are being shifted, Wright said.
McMELs work shows there are nine essential elements to motivating underachievers, as noted in the centers Schools We Need Project.
Other strategies critical to educating hard-to-reach students include allowing students to learn at their own pace and letting students use technology to learn and to create things that demonstrate what they have learned, according to Muir. Technology is their tool of choice outside of school, it should be in school, as well, he said.
Some younger students in ResulTech schools do go back to a more traditional school, Wright noted. But once the older kids become responsible for their own learning at ALA, they are reluctant to leave.
We try to understand the life circumstances of these families, he continued. A student could be living with a different relative each week. We try to create a program where each student can experience some level of success.