From anecdotal evidence and professional writings, we believe one of the precursors to high school success is a good start as freshmen. When we began identifying a goal related to closing an achievement gap, we looked at incoming freshman data to see if we could identify an achievement problem. In looking at the data, we saw a significant gap between both the failure rates in core academic classes and the SOL scores of students receiving Special Education services versus general education students; 42% of freshmen who earned an ‘F’ in their eighth grade year were receiving Special Education services. On our Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) school report card, we noted that while less than 20% of 8th grade students did not meet statewide Reading, Writing and Mathematics goals, almost half of students receiving Special Education services did not meet those goals. This data indicated an important achievement gap we decided to address. The team agreed that assisting these students to earn better results as freshmen would not only be a valuable emphasis but one yielding both short term and longer term benefits.
The team discussed possible interventions drawing upon past experience with, and from published research, knowledge of successful strategies. We looked for those least intrusive to students’ and teachers’ time in the normal flow of the school year while bringing to bear as many as we believed could be effective. We believe a strategic approach with multiplicity was more likely to meet the needs of more students; different students would respond more positively to different approaches. Consequently, there were several facets of our intervention plan.
Teacher. First, when we returned in August before schedules were given to students, we reviewed the schedules of the identified students to ensure they were assigned to teachers we knew had the most empathic approach and patience with students. Since many of these students were already assigned teachers of Special Education, we had limited flexibility of teacher preference. For team-taught classes (those with both general education and Special Education students and a teacher for each cohort), if there was more than one possibility of placement with a general education teacher, we were able to make an assignment preference. We alerted the teachers of our concerns about the students; we believed that the students would be more inclined to work harder with teachers who demonstrated the most investment in their students.
Class. We worked with the Special Education Department Chair to ensure that our identified students were assigned to the Strategies for Success class. This class provides Special Education students with organizational support, the opportunity for teacher oversight of work being done (or caught up) for academic classes and training in study and organizational skills.
Group. Interested counselors volunteered to lead a Study Skills and academic concern group specifically provided to assist our identified students. After reviewing the data from first semester grades, we identified the students still at most risk of failing and invited them to participate. The group met four times in the spring semester. Based on the results of a pre-survey of group members identifying the most prevalent impediments to their success, the facilitators conducted a review of online and other resources to address those concerns.
Individual Intervention. Once students of concern were identified, counselors were aware of the students on their caseload and committed to monitoring and touching base with the students periodically during the year. Having the students’ schedules and teacher assignments enabled counselors to maintain more frequent communication with teachers; this was particularly important for early notification from the teacher to counselor if a student’s performance began to decline.
Of the fourteen identified students failing a core class in eighth grade, only two failed a ninth grade core class, a success rate of 86% which exceeded our goal of 75%. However, as we analyzed the data and reflected on its implications, we realized that these students already had a high degree of special support due to their status as Special Education students. While we did get positive perception data from the students on our group effort, we could not determine the degree of importance of it and our other interventions on the outcome. Based on the data, we recognize that this population of students may need different supports than what we offered in our small group. In the future, we plan to focus more on motivation and self-investment in their own education, rather than academic skills they may already be learning.