Offering at-risk students a leg up on high school

Co-teachers in a pilot program help 9th-graders get on the academic track.

April 10, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

By his own accounts, Corey Braxton was a slacker, getting by middle school by acting as the class clown.

Likewise, Sara Andino didn't take her classes seriously, treating school as a place to hang out with friends.

Both students, now sophomores at Oakland Mills High School, received a serious awakening in ninth grade when they enrolled in an intervention program that puts two teachers -- one regular and one special education -- in their English and algebra classes. The program, in a nontraditional classroom setting, generally has been successful in helping students not only achieve academically but in encouraging their potential.

"The teachers were strict," said Sara, 15, who now maintains a 3.0 grade-point average. "It was frustrating for me. You always blamed the teachers. [But] me catching an attitude got old. I realized that it was my fault and that I needed to do something about school. The relationships with the teachers helped a lot."

Added Corey, 16, "I feel more positive that I'll do something with my life after high school than I ever did."

The co-teaching program -- which began last school year as a pilot class at Oakland Mills and Hammond high schools -- takes ninth-graders who need extra help and immerses them in a classroom environment that stresses cooperative learning.

"The learning is shared by all students," said Patti Mackey, a special-education resource teacher who, along with special-education coordinator Patty Daley, works with the program's teachers.

No typical class

Students must put aside the workings of a typical class: a teacher standing at the blackboard and lecturing. Instead, students learn in groups, through discussions and exercises facilitated by two teachers.

"This is not rocket science," said Pamela Myette, a special educator who co-teaches English with Jacqueline Dzubak at Oakland Mills. "This is realizing that for students to learn, they have to be invested in themselves and engaged. If you could create that, you've empowered them."

These English and algebra classes are smaller -- averaging 20 students, including a handful with special-education needs -- which allows for more individual attention.

Moreover, students take an additional seminar course for each subject, totaling nearly two hours of instruction each day. Some students take the courses in both subjects, while others attend either English or algebra class and the corresponding seminar.

Board of Education members and top school administrators have been so impressed by the co-teaching program that they want to expand it to three more high schools -- Howard, Long Reach and Wilde Lake -- in the fall, as requested in the fiscal 2006 budget submitted to the county executive.

Measuring success

Last year's pilot group at Oakland and Hammond high schools scored well on local and state assessments in each subject. Some students have gone on to take honors courses in 10th grade, passed the state High School Assessment tests and taken on leadership roles.

"Some kids exceeded their potential," said Peter Jordan, the special-education teacher for algebra at Oakland Mills.

Beyond the test scores, though, students and teachers value the relationships and the bonds that have formed through the program.

Besides working with the students on academics, the four Oakland Mills teachers -- Myette and Dzubak in English, and Jordan and Emma Ames in algebra -- are involved in their students' personal lives: They know what's going on with their students' friends, at home and with themselves.

"I've always been an involved teacher," Ames said. "Now, I'm afforded the opportunity to have a relationship with every kid."

`Like our family'

As Dana Pizzi, 15, a ninth-grader in the co-teaching English classes, puts it: "These classes are like our family."

Inside the program's algebra classroom hangs a poster spelling out a mission statement established and signed by each of this year's math students: to work harder than ever before; to learn the material; and become more successful students.

The learning process, however, isn't always easy for teachers and students. Some students never developed homework or study habits, or never read a full novel. And many are accustomed to listening to lectures and then regurgitating information.

"They are more comfortable being told what to do," Jordan said.

So, he and the three teachers must motivate, cajole and come up with creative and interactive lessons, which is both challenging and gratifying for the educators.

"We have to make them see themselves as we see them," Ames said. "We have to make them believe in themselves."

Michael Clubb, 15, who is enrolled in the English classes, said the co-teaching program has helped him become more confident and assertive in school.

"In middle school, I was really more of a quiet person. I didn't talk a lot and just listened to lectures," Michael said. "This year, I have a chance to actually speak and be in the [class] conversations and react instead of sitting back."

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