Fewer than 40 percent of the students who enter the ninth grade in Dallas (Texas) Independent School District each year graduate. The painful truth faced by Bill Betzen and his colleagues at Ral Quintanilla Middle School is that some of their students never even make it to ninth grade. In this school, the lack of purpose, focus, and goals that often is rampant among middle schoolers is compounded by language and cultural issues. The majority of students are Hispanic and most come from immigrant families who have arrived in the United States within the past generation.
"Most parents speak little English," says Betzen, the school's computer applications teacher. "Much energy is dedicated to learning a new language and culture. Often our students function in the role of translators for their parents. Consequently, these students have fewer people within their families and neighborhoods who can tell them what school will be like, and what their goals should, or could, be in our culture. Many have no family educational tradition to follow; even fewer have positive mentors comfortable with U.S. culture."
While a lack of motivation isn't always evident in his computer applications classes because students enjoy working with computers, Betzen views the course as a strong indicator. If a student is apathetic in his classroom, he or she is probably having major problems in all classes and might be in danger of dropping out. It was the critical few students who fit that criteria that Betzen specifically targeted with his Achievements & Goals Archive Project.
A sign on the door explains the archive’s purpose.
Photo provided by Bill Betzen.
"With this project, all the students have at least this one experience of thinking about and planning long-range goals for themselves," said Betzen. "Hopefully, that will help break the ice, so they can move closer to making planning and goal-making a common part of life. Being goal-centered is valuable in itself. Changing and evolving goals should be an expected and normal part of life."
As part of the project, students in eighth grade who are nearing middle-school graduation are asked to write a private letter to themselves about their goals and aspirations. The letters are filed in a locked "archive" at the school and will be returned to the graduates in ten years. Students are invited to return to the school at that time and share their successes as an inspiration for those future classes.
"The people who will gain the most 10 years from now will be the students who listen to these Quintanilla alumni and the recommendations they give," explained Betzen. "This annual mentoring exercise that will start in 10 years will fill in gaps that might exist for families without an educational tradition. Children will hear from alumni who they can identify with, often those who have succeeded and who have been there. It will help them begin to visualize their own futures and write their own letters for the Achievements & Goals Archive."
Betzen's students responded eagerly to the letter-writing assignment. "More than 95 percent of eighth grade students finished their letters," Betzen told Education World. However, when one student, a new mother, struggled with writing her letter, it was never completed. Now, Betzen recognizes the potential for the exercise to become a counseling opportunity, and vows he won't miss that chance again. "In the future, we will have school counselors prepared to help students who might have issues that this exercise brings to the surface," he said.
"We now have over 500 letters in the archive," Betzen noted. "It's as if the project helps [students] begin to realize that they will control and be responsible for their own lives someday, and this is the start in that direction. They are really in charge."
The actual archive is a monument to Betzen's own goals and determination. He encourages other schools to build similar archives to show the importance and value of the hopes and dreams of the student body. He advises educators to get approval and encouragement for the idea from teachers, parents, and students, and to seek funding from a local business. The archive at Ral Quintanilla Middle School was provided by a nearby Lowe's Home Improvement Center.
What does Betzen look forward to in ten years? Hearing what the former eighth graders will tell those future students in their "10 years of wisdom" talks, and learning whether they often thought about opening their letters ten years later.
Betzen also asks other schools to share their experiences with similar projects. "I have no idea where this project might lead, or what form it might take [in the future], but it appears we are heading in the right direction," he observed. "If we all share our experiences with our different projects about goals and achievements, it will help all our students become more effective. We can learn from one another. Such projects might become a powerful, positive, common experience for all middle school students."
The first 8th grade class involved in the Archive Project has now graduated as members of the class of 2009. Both the high schools that our middle school feeds into set 12+ year records -- having the largest 12th grade class at any time in those 12 years! Both schools have graduation rates that are improving. The Archive Project now has spread to four other DISD schools and, hopefully, will be in twice that many within the next year. It is going very well for a simple $2 per student project.
~ Bill Betzen The School Archive Project - A Dropout Cure
Article by Cara Bafile
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