Two years ago our school implemented a Retention Policy. Prior to that, as I was told, we allowed students to be promoted with 2, 3, 4 failures in academic classes. Teachers were frustrated, students were being sent mixed messages, and parents were under the impression that No Child Left Behind meant we were unable to fail anyone.
The School Leadership Committee (SLC) worked for a year on drafting a Retention Policy. They looked at what surrounding schools were doing, did some research on the impact of retention, and eventually came up with a progressive Retention Policy. We implemented the policy in the fall of 2016. Students, parents and the community were made aware of the policy which basically retained 6th graders if they failed all 4 classes, 7th graders if they failed 3 or more classes, and 8th graders if they failed 2 or more courses. During the 16-17 school year teachers, guidance counselors and administration worked with students and parents on this policy. There were increased face to face meetings after each marking period, additional resources assigned to students and more referrals to the I and RS team. At the end of the year there were 8 students who were scheduled to be retained. Each of those students either transferred to another school or enrolled in our Alternative School. The SLC closely monitored the policy and ended up requesting that we revise the policy for the 17-18 school year due to a lack of rigor.
The revised policy for the 17-18 school year was far more rigorous than the previous year but there were additional assistance added in. The new policy, which was throughout all 3 grade levels, required any student who failed more than 2 year long classes to be retained, and anyone who failed 2 classes would be required to attend summer school. As we went through the year, we continued to monitor the academic progress of the students in danger of being retained, increased our contact with parents, and added in additional resources.
At the conclusion of the 17-18 we had 17 students retained and 38 students eligible for summer school. Due to some poor planning on my part, we also didn’t have a budget for summer school. I wasn’t able to hire any staff. I had to ask all the 12 month guidance and administration in the building to assist me in running the summer school. We were also very fortunate that our contract with the online learning platform Edmentum still allowed us to use the diagnostic program Exact Path. So, in a sense, the academics would be taken care of through the online program.
As we analysed the students who were eligible for summer school, we noticed a few trends. First, these students were not your likely candidates. Very few had high levels of discipline and even fewer had attendance issues. We scoured their report cards and read the comments from the teachers. It was through this exercise that we were able to identify the main reason these students were in summer school. Want to take a guess at what the main factor was?
If you guessed motivation than you would win!
The major theme of the teacher comments on the students centered around motivation. It was not a case of “can’t do” but rather a case of “won’t do.” Armed with this data we developed a summer school that would get to the core of the issue for the students so that they could use this time to change their mindsets about school, learning, teachers, and most importantly, themselves.
We are only one week into the program and of the 31 students who chose to participate, we have a 90% attendance rate. Students are doing daily gratitude journals, practicing mindfulness, analyzing their 17-18 school year, and learning about the impact of growth vs. fixed mindset. They spend about half their time working on their academic areas of concern and the other half working on themselves. We show daily motivational videos and we have scheduled local community members to visit and talk with them about overcoming obstacles.
The 5 staff who are working the program have learned a lot in one week. As we have read through their essays and journals it has become clear to us that these students have so much to offer our school. Some of them are dealing with a mountain of obstacles both personally and in their community. They will admit that school was not their top priority but they are now seeing the value.
What will the next 4 weeks hold for the summer school? We hope that we continue to build the students motivation and understanding of their amazing potential. We will continue to expand their horizons and have them begin working on their service learning projects. There are even a few students who are going to be developing a presentation to the administration to show the staff based on the popular book If She Only Knew Me. Stay tuned for more as the summer school develops.
About The Author
Spike Cook, Ed.D., Principal, Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to being a Principal, Dr. Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipaPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognized as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight. Connect with @drspikecook via Twitter.