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District to Provide Stepping Stone for Struggling Eighth Graders

The ninth grade academy will start in the fall.

In the fall of 2012, the district will be debuting a special ninth grade academy for students who need an extra step transitioning from middle to high school, while still earning credit.

Superintendent Eric Knost called the freshman academy another phase of the alternative program and it is one of the first in the area that is specific to freshmen.

“It either becomes an early identifier to our alt program or career technical training,” he said, “or it will be that stepping stone for those kids that really floundered in middle school… to spend a year in a much smaller environment.”

Brian Lane helped develop the academy, which is modeled after both the district’s already-existing high school alternative academy and an intervention program at the middle school level. Lane serves as the Superintendent of the Supervision of Schools for the district.

“I really anticipate that we’re going to see kids— many of them who haven’t had success in years— experience their first taste of success,” Lane said. “It’s just one more piece in there, one more support so that kids don’t fall through the cracks.”

Middle school principals will help identify these students through a program already in place in each of the district’s four middle schools.

Knost predicts the academy will include 6-9 kids from each middle school, with a cap of around 15 students per school. The academy will be made up of two sessions, an a.m. and p.m. class. Students will work on their core subjects at the Witzel Building and still take electives such as P.E. at their perspective high schools.

“It may be, two or three months into school, they are fine and can go back into high school or the kid really shines and they become part of the alt academy,” Knost said.

One staff member will oversee the students and Knost said the district will rearrange staffing positions so the academy position will not require any additional staff.

The idea for the academy started more than two years ago, when district administration realized they were having more kids in eighth grade not ready to move on to high school.

“We had a debate going on in this school district for a long time, social promotion versus retention, especially with an eighth grade student,” Knost said.

Lane put together a committee made up of approximately 20 counselors, administrators and teachers at the middle school level. After research, they found promoting students to the ninth grade with failing grades was not successful, but neither is retaining them to repeat the eighth grade over again. 

“The things that did work were additional parental involvement, specific interventions for the kids and additional relationships with people in the building, someone checking on them,” he said.

The committee developed the Interventions to Promote Academically Successful Students (IPASS), which is a tiered system that places certain interventions on students the longer they have two or more failing grades.

This is the program’s second year in middle schools and Lane said that most students were responding to the interventions.

IPASS consists of five stages, starting with a parent signature form and teacher meetings after one progress report with two or more failing grades, and ending with mandatory after-school tutoring, restrictions on non-academic activities and a mentoring program with a member of the building’s staff.

“The kids who are getting down to stage four and five, the middle school principals are going to get together with the team and that’s how they’re going to make their recommendation for the freshman academy. Clearly something’s not fitting for these kids,” Lane said.

Knost said originally, the district wanted the ninth grade academy to be located in each high school, but room in Oakville and Mehlville High Schools was sparse. The Witzel Building already houses the district’s alternative academy open to grades 10-12, and the curriculum of the freshman academy will have the same approach as the alternative school.

Transportation to Witzel Building is already set up through the alternative academy and students can get shuttles to their high school to complete their elective courses. If their grades meet the district’s criteria, the students will still be allowed to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.

“We considered having them kind of model the alt program where they just work on core subjects in a computer-based, blended learning scenario and then they funnel out into the school for their electives,” Knost said. “There will be a lot of one-on-one instruction. Our goal is, over the course of that semester or year, to determine what their future holds.”

The program’s success will be measured not only by students’ grades, but also by attendance and behavior. 

At the Nov. 17 board meeting, Secretary Elaine Powers asked Knost about a possible negative parent reaction to their kid being placed into a freshman academy, rather than traditional high school.

“I think it all comes down to how we handle it and the communication leading up to it. If we communicate and leave plenty of time up front to understand the process, 99 percent of the time, those things go just fine,” he said, adding that the parents would be informed of the recommendation long before the end of eighth grade. 

“I want to see how it has an impact on our kids and let what we find drive changes or expansions to the idea,” Knost said.

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