By Suzanne Sutherland
Long before the push for "No Child Left Behind" made headlines, Hillview Middle School teachers and staff in Menlo Park began working with students who performed poorly on standardized tests.
From mentoring programs and individualized instruction, to group counseling and one-on-one tutoring, some programs worked for certain students and some didn't.
For at-risk students, just keeping pace with the curve is critical. Bridging the achievement gap between their knowledge and skills and those of their peers can be a challenge — and the sooner the gap is lessened the better their chances are of excelling in high school and beyond.
To address this need, in the fall of 2010, counselor Debbie Devoto collaborated with teachers in the newly formed eighth-grade academy to create the College Bound program.
The idea was to:
• Focus on building a peer community among students who scored below proficient on the standardized STAR tests.
• Give them incentives to become excited about going to college, and an understanding of what it takes to get there.
• Challenge them to go for it.
The program evolved into a three-pronged approach.
The first component was to engage families and educate them about how they could help. Once a month, "Family Dinners" were held to update parents on student progress, introduce them to community support programs, and inform them of what was going on at school.
As momentum for the program built, more and more families regularly attended with their students. By May, the family dinners typically included more that 50 people.
The second component of the program was "in the field." Ms. Devoto arranged for field trips to local colleges, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, USF and San Francisco State. The trips got the kids interested and excited about the prospects of some day being a part of a four-year institution.
Tours of a fraternity and sorority on the Cal campus were especially of interest to the students.
The third and most important part of the program became "doing what it takes."
Each day, after school, Ms. Devoto would spend one and a half to two hours with students in a homework support program. Academy teachers were available to give extra instruction, and no student left without finishing the homework.
"What was amazing to me was that after the first field trip, the students wanted to come in and get their homework done," Ms. Devoto noted. "These were students who would typically come to school unprepared.
"Suddenly, they were doing their homework, studying for tests, asking for help, and participating in class," she said. "Only one of the students in the program opted out."
In the end, of the 21 students in the program, 20 graduated from Hillview in 2011. Fifteen students showed a marked improvement in their standardized test scores by rising one level in at least one area.
Ms. Devoto plans to follow up with the high schools at the end of the first semester to get information and feedback on how the transition to high school has been for these students.
With the first cohort now in high school, Ms. Devoto has expanded the College Bound program this year to begin with sixth-graders. She has assembled a steering committee — made up of one teacher from each grade level and co-counselor Robyn Watts — to look at ways to develop a three-year program. Activities at all grade levels are under way.
The focus for at-risk sixth-graders is to take advantage of the after-school peer tutoring program, started four years ago by Ms. Watts. Ms. Devoto has matched 30 sixth-graders with a seventh- or eighth-grade peer tutor, who works with them every day after school, answering questions, showing them good organizational skills, and teaching them how to study for tests and quizzes.
The field trips for this group are rewards for students who earn the required GPA. This first trimester, 21 of the 30 students reached the bar. These students were also recognized at our December Family Dinner, attended by 66 people.
Seventh-grade at-risk students are being encouraged to look ahead to high school. These students are visiting the four schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, as well as several private schools in the area.
The November Family Dinner was held at Summit Preparatory Charter High School, where both Summit and Everest school staffs presented their programs. Seventh-graders also attend a homework support program — headed by Ms. Watts and teacher Brenda Keith — that also includes a few peer tutors who help with individual questions and organization.
The eighth-grade College Bound program remains as it was last year, with the focus on looking at and getting excited about colleges. In addition, a field trip is planned to the Career Center at Menlo-Atherton High School, where college counselor Alice Kleeman will lead the students through an interest inventory and career search.
It is hoped that by encouraging these under-achieving students to look ahead to the possibilities of college and careers, they will find incentives to overcome and embrace the struggle that comes with loving to learn.
It is never too late to bridge the achievement gap and never too early to focus on the future — be it high school or college. The College Bound program pulls together students, families, teachers and the community to give our at-risk students the motivation and support to change their educational trajectories.
Ms. Devoto is passionate about making an impact with the students in the program. "The most rewarding part of this program for me has been to see the smile that appears when a student realizes that he or she can do it; sometimes that smile is a shy, hidden one, and sometimes it's worn all over their body," she said. "I love this job. I wake up every day, and can't wait to get to school."
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