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Half-Grade Program Helps Students 'Excel'
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Faced with a mandate to end social promotion, school officials in St. Paul, Minnesota, realized that they needed to help motivated students in key grades avoid retention. The result was Excel, a program that allows third, fifth, and eighth graders who might otherwise be retained to advance half a grade instead. As "half-graders," the students get the additional support they need to catch up with their classmates. Included: Examples of how Excel teachers help students achieve.

Some students in St. Paul, Minnesota, who were at risk of being retained, will have a chance to catch up with their classmates through a first-of-its-kind program designed to help lagging students.

The program, called Excel, allows motivated third, fifth, and eighth graders who do not meet grade-level standards and would be retained to advance half a grade instead. Then, as "half-graders," the students get the additional support they need to help them eventually catch up with their peers.

About 560 students were enrolled in this year's Excel program. To be accepted, each student had to attend summer school and promise to attend this summer as well. If they do well, those students will rejoin their peers at grade level in September 2002, although they will continue to receive additional support.

"This is not a punishment," Denise Quinlan, the Excel program director, tells Education World. "This is an effective intervention for kids who are behind academically. It allows teachers to spend more time on task and to implement research-based programs."


Some Excel students are mainstreamed in regular fourth- and sixth-grade classes, while others are in self-contained Excel classes. Each class that includes Excel students has a maximum of 24 students.

Excel teachers focus on individualized instruction in basic skills, spending at least two hours a day on reading, writing, and literature and at least 90 minutes a day on mathematics. Curriculum programs such as Balanced Literacy, Writers' Workshop, and Integrated Math are used. In addition, some students leave the classroom for additional services.

"This is my 19th year teaching -- and it's the hardest year I've ever had," says Lynne Hisdahl, who volunteered to teach an Excel class at Maxfield Elementary School. "You have to plan right to the last minute." Hisdahl's class of 18 includes seven 5.5-level Excel students and 11 traditional sixth graders.

Excel students are assessed frequently to determine what they have learned and what skills they still need to master, Quinlan says. Youngsters who do not do well after a year in Excel could be recommended for full retention.

Parents of Excel students are urged to participate in as many school activities as possible. "Schools understand that the parents of Excel students have to be a priority as far as parent involvement and teacher communication goes," Quinlan adds. "Ideally, we'd like to see parents sign off on their children's academic improvement plans three times a year."


Administrators began discussing how to help students at risk of failing after the board of education voted in February 2000 to eliminate social promotion. They decided to focus on students in grades three, five, and eight because those are the grades in which state tests are administered, Quinlan tells Education World.

After some research, administrators determined that 3,000 students in those three grades did not meet standards and could be retained after the 2000-2001 academic year. "We knew we needed a program to meet their academic needs and at the same time not allow them to simply stand still," says Quinlan. "We had to have an academic intervention plan."

After developing Excel, district staff members recommended 900 third, fifth, and eighth graders for the program. Of the 900, about 300 students were eventually retained because they did not attend summer school, according to Quinlan. Budget constraints likely will prevent the school system from expanding the program to other grades.


Excel teachers also began preparing during the summer, Quinlan notes. The teachers participated in workshops and began building relationships with students, either in their summer school classes or during home visits.

Hisdahl tells Education World that even though her class requires more preparation than a traditional sixth-grade class, she enjoys the challenge.

"They often have trouble following directions," Hisdahl says of her Excel students, "and they need more time on just about everything. I'm looking more closely at my lessons to see how I can teach to reach them -- which I might not have done before -- but I like working with kids who need things presented in different ways."

While teaching statistics, for example, Hisdahl arranges students in a representation of a graph before asking them to draw one. If some students are better at sketching an answer than writing one, Hisdahl allows them to do that. "I want them to know that their strengths are validated," she explains.

Neither Hisdahl nor Nancy Gates, whose class at Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School includes 5.5-level Excel students, finds that teaching to different levels of students is a problem. Hisdahl says she spends time "community-building" so the Excel students in her class are not set apart. She tells Education World that her students realize everyone needs help in certain areas and everyone is gifted in some way, and they understand that they can use their gifts to help others.

Hisdahl, who shares an aide with another teacher, notes that the size of the class and the extra support also help. "I've never had fewer than 30 students in sixth grade before," she says. "Eighteen is a picnic."

Gates, who has 14 students -- including 11 Excel students -- in her class, also said that the small class size helps her address students' needs. "Everyone in my class is held to the highest expectations," she explains. "In a regular class, the Excel students tend to fade into the background, but in this class, everyone can learn and everyone is a star."

Both teachers say that one of the lessons they learned from participating in the Excel program is that smaller classes, individual attention, and additional funding would benefit all students.

"It's another example of what we already know is good teaching," Hisdahl comments. "In Excel, we have the class size and the administrative and financial support to do it."