There are some rock-solid truths to the universe usually discovered by anyone who's ever been in ISS (in-school suspension).
You don't spend the day with peers who rank among the school's best and brightest. The teacher in charge is either a humorless martinet or a coach who likes to tell war stories which need to be good because he is the only one doing the talking. Each student is isolated at a separate desk; no group activity, no pod work, no changing classes.
Most importantly, though, there is magic in the room. Because suddenly, you can get all this work done that you've found impossible to attempt, let alone complete before.
The Houston Independent School District is about to embrace that lack of distraction in a big way — with a touch of humanity — as it goes about the business of trying to get more kids to walk across the graduation stage.
Under a new credit recovery program that Superintendent Terry Grier hopes will start in January, high school students who aren't on track to graduate on time will be offered the chance to go one-on-one with a computer. They will be evaluated by the computer both for what they don't know and what they do. And backing them up will be 30 specially selected "graduation coaches," described by Grier as a combination of "mentor, coach and quasi counselor."
The biggest part of HISD's credit-recovery approach is that students will start working in a course at the point where their knowledge stops. If the computer says they understand the first five lessons in Algebra I, students will start with lesson six and proceed from there. They work at their own pace, and if they're taking multiple classes, they can schedule their own times when they want to tackle a particular subject. They can even work from home. Pass the class, and shazaam, they get a credit.
The graduation coach will monitor proceedings, answer questions, encourage completion and proctor exams. Grier, who instituted a similar program at his last superintendency, in San Diego, says elementary and middle school students there "recovered 4,523 courses that they had previously failed." He didn't waste any time getting it going here.
Grier had his education experts evaluate several potential software programs. Principals and teachers were invited over to try out the four finalists his administrators came up with and help the district buy the best program.
"Then we did something we had not done here," Grier says. "We identified students who'd failed three or more courses. We brought them in and let them experience each one of the softwares." As it turned out, all three groups separately picked the same software from APEX Learning, which turned out to be the same program the San Diego district used. (Grier says he stayed at arm's length throughout the selection process.)
Eli Martinez, 16 going on 17, was one of those students. Martinez admits he has failed his share of courses at Reagan High School and says he was really surprised when the district wanted his opinion. Right now the 11th grader is doing okay in algebra, world history and English, but is behind in biology and chemistry.
Not only did he get to test-drive software programs in algebra, history, world geography and English, but he ended up explaining them to the educators. "I kind of caught on to it. It was a couple of programs that were kind of like college level; the others were easy, where the strategies were just more direct without excessive writing or paragraphs."
Senior Cecilia Gomez, now paying for earlier years of not paying enough attention, was also part of the group. She's been working hard this year, hoping to graduate with her class. She's already taking some computer-instructed classes and likes them for their speed.
"You don't have to take a class a whole semester. You can do it in a month or four weeks. You don't have to be worrying about, 'Am I going to fail the cycle or something?' Your goal is to make a 70 in the class. You make a 70, you get the credit."
"It's really easy to get a high school diploma," Gomez says. "You just have to pass your classes."
HISD's program, in many ways, shows amazing similarities to the computer-driven alternative-education program run by the private, for-profit Community Education Partners, which promises to get kids caught up who are far behind while also amending their bad behaviors.
There are differences. CEP is dealing with students who, for the most part, don't want to be there. HISD's students will be engaged because they've bought into finishing school. CEP students are there for the long haul, typically referred there for 180-day stints (a school year). In the HISD credit-recovery program, students are up and out as soon as they pass enough classes.
According to many reports over the years, CEP has a lot of distractions due to in-school fighting. And while HISD went out of its way to select the best teachers possible as graduation coaches ("We interviewed more than 100 teachers for 30 positions," Grier says), CEP is still working through its ranks to clear out teachers who have been uncertified for years.
HISD will focus its program on high-schoolers, particularly kids who should be seniors. CEP has moved most of its business to middle-schoolers. Grier, by the way, is very interested, he says, in finding out how many students sent to CEP have been struggling academically for years.
As practical as the credit-recovery approach seems, there is still something unsettling about it. Listening to Cecilia Gomez and Eli Martinez, there is clearly determination there. What seems to be missing is any sense of enthusiasm about learning for the sheer joy and pleasure of learning.
Both agree they don't like words, written or spoken.
"I like the videos. I didn't like too much reading. I think I learn more with videos because I can see it," Gomez says.
"A lot of people and students, they don't like a lot of paragraphs, a lot is boring," Martinez says. "This one asks you a simple question, gives you a tip and you just solve it."
What the computer program offers the high school junior is an end to lengthy narrative and windy teachers. Martinez sees it as a more logical and accessible way to learn.
"It doesn't give excessive information. It gives you what you want for the problem or the test or the exam you need to take, but not excessive info. It gives you tips and backup. If that doesn't help you, you can go to another chapter. The teachers are involved if you need extra help or if you're still stuck."
"I feel that teachers give excessive information," Martinez says. "They don't go off-subject, but they bring up what isn't necessary for the exam or the pop quiz. That's where I feel every student usually falls off right there, because they're not given what is recommended. A lot of teachers just tend to drift off and go off subject. You lose all track."
Right now, Martinez is trying to start a business with an architect. He's doing blueprints, graphic design and airbrushing. "I also work with my uncles and my family; they deal with body parts and cars. They give me a chance to airbrush on their cars, like do a demonstration."
He wants a diploma, not a GED, and is convinced that credit recovery will help him get there on time. "It's another way to catch up so you can be ahead. You can even take other courses and go ahead and graduate early." In fact, he says he wants to go back through the courses he's taking now to make sure he really knows the material.
Grier is the first to say the program is "a short-term solution to a long-term problem." He says the longer-term solution "is to work with kids early in the first, second and third grades to make sure they have the skills."
But the right-now reality is: "We have a number of our students who should be seniors that have failed so many courses that they have really given up hope," Grier says. "They don't see how they can graduate in four years. Some don't see how they can graduate in five, although they keep trying."
He's used this concept in two districts he's worked in, in North Carolina and California. "You spend time answering questions, reading, working projects online, and you have a teacher in the classroom who monitors your work. It's pretty much curriculum driven by the computer."
The computer lets a student know when he's test-ready, Grier says. "You get your instructor, she monitors your test and once you have finished, you're given a grade for that course."
"So versus having to take the same course over again for 180 days with pretty much the same textbook...the average is 76 days to complete the course with a B average," Grier says.
An interesting blip they found in San Diego, Grier says, was: "We found kids that, the very first time they took the test, they had mastered everything." They already knew the material, "but they didn't like the teacher or wouldn't come to school regularly. It was a discipline problem." Those kids had to spend a minimal number of days in class before they could test out.
This isn't a program for teachers who want a strongly structured environment, Grier says. "We had to have teachers who were empathetic, had high expectations, were good organizers, didn't take no as an answer, didn't like excuses and wouldn't accept them. Teachers who saw failure as temporary."
"What we found was that if we let the students work at their own pace, decide what they wanted to work on, it worked better." The graduation coach is still there to intervene if, for example, a student is spending all his time on one or two courses and ignoring another that is essential for graduation, Grier says.
The software program is universal. That way, if students move within district from school to school as they often do, they won't be penalized by having to take on a different program, Grier says.
Graduation coaches will be on a 12-month contract. Second semester, they'll be working primarily with seniors who lack the number of units they need to graduate, Grier says. But he also wants this to become a key component of the summer school program, especially for freshman who fail three or more courses. "They get so far behind that they also give up and quit."
In an encouraging sign that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, these kids with academic problems do care; they do want a diploma. Whatever else they might reject, they are true believers in the value of that piece of paper. Cecilia Gomez, who wants to be a nurse some day, never dropped out. She took a lot of summer school and algebra has been especially tough, but she knows her way to a better job is through a high school diploma.
There's a natural reaction here that says yes, this is dynamic, this is a take-charge approach to lifting kids out of their self-devised failure holes. The old way hasn't worked for some kids. Different strategies are needed. Applause, please. Applause all round.
But it's applause with an asterisk. (An asterisk that is clearly going against the tide.)
More and more colleges offer students entire courses online. Never see a teacher, never leave your house for a class, hey, never leave your room.
But isn't it a little bit disturbing that just as we no longer tolerate compromise in listening to other people's music, we're crafting a last-ditch strategy that relieves students of the distractions of nonessentials — the too-much-information that has to be sorted through, the English teacher who waxes philosophical about his favorite poem, the algebra teacher trying to spread her slightly dorky enthusiasm about cosigns and symbols and a larger game board than what's contained in a book?
It's a just-the-facts approach that saves kids — and, yes, we desperately need a higher graduation rate in HISD and other Texas school districts — but may not prepare them well for that annoyingly messy thing we call life, with all its distractions both tedious and wonderful.
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