A Problem of Practice: helping students through struggle

When we state our beliefs about learning that we believe all students can learn, we are implying that we can work with all students to help guide them down the path of learning.  What happens when some students experience difficulties that obstruct the path of learning?

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Schools have an obligation to work with these students to ensure that they too have access to educational success.  A high-performing school is only as good as how it supports its struggling students.  If we are truly interested in teaching all students then we have to focus on improving the academic support of our students who struggle.

As a career educator with 17 years of experience teaching in the secondary classroom and six years of experience in administration, I am interested in examining how schools support all students, but specifically students who struggle, as they work through a challenging program designed to prepare them for post-secondary education and the current and future workplace.  When students struggle at various points in their high school careers,  how can we ensure that we are effectively preparing students with all the relevant skills they will need to be successful in the contemporary university and workplace settings?  I am fascinated by the question of how we as schools respond when students struggle to meet expectations.  How do we and can we adjust our practice in the classroom and on the school-wide level to ensure that all students succeed?

Currently high schools set  graduation requirements that asks students to focus on acquiring a set number of credits across a variety of academic departments.  For example in my school, in order to graduate, students need to acquire 130 credits which is broken down into 16 credits of English, 16 credits in math among others. While this system seems to work well overall, students can go through high school, taking different course selections and have widely different experiences, exhibiting degrees of mastery of the essential skills necessary for college and career.  How can we ensure that students who get lower grades and who are thus tracked into lower-level classes attain the pre-requisite knowledge and skills that will serve them well in college?  When students struggle in high school, their grades tend to suffer and sometimes they change their academic program as a result.  Changes in a student’s academic program due to failure and low grades may impact a student’s future college and career choices.

I currently see three ways students struggle in general in high school.  There are students who are going through a health crisis.  Typically, these students miss school for a chunk of time to get treatment.  During this absence, teachers are asked to reduce the list of work that is missed so the student is not inundated with work upon his/her return.  Many high schools have implemented transition or “bridge” support systems that pair students with an academic support counselor and an academic aid who help students manage the workload and liaise directly with teachers to help the student get back on track.  In most cases, these students are able to transition back from a hospitalization successfully with the help of these dedicated staff members.  In some cases, a student’s transition back is not smooth and uniform.  Some students experience a smooth transition back in some of their classes and they may experience difficulty in one or two academic classes over a longer period of time.  What ends up happening is that the student’s grade dips into failure and for a variety of reasons he/she has difficulty returning to passing grades after the transition back from hospitalization.  In some cases, the student was failing before the hospitalization and the extended absence only makes the possibility of returning to passing grades that much more difficult.  Once the student experiences failure in a course over two academic terms, it becomes almost mathematically impossible for him/her to pass the course for the year and we withdraw the student from the class to “lighten their load” and ensure the success in the courses that he/she is passing, allowing them to focus on their other core classes.  Students can then make up those credits in later years, either by taking another course later in their academic program or not ever if the credits are not essential to graduation.

What if we had additional interventions to put into place at the first sign of academic struggle to ensure that failure is more of a temporary rather than chronic state?  If students who return from hospitalization had additional academic support maybe they would be better equipped to handle their academic workload while dealing with issues outside of school.

Another common occurrence of struggle in high school happens when students are in transition from middle school to high school.  Students enter high school with some gaps and may not be aware of these gaps.  If they are placed in courses that are generally on grade level, they may experience failure early on in their ninth grade year.  These gaps may be apparent and if so they are placed in courses leveled with appropriate pace and challenge in their ninth grade year.  Once these students start their high school career in the courses with a level of challenge that matches their motivation in some or all academic departments, they generally remain in courses that may not push them out of their comfort zone for the remainder of their high school career.  These students might never strive to take the most challenging courses in the program of studies, thus limiting heir post-secondary choices.

What if we had interventions to fill those learning gaps early in 9th grade or even in earlier so that students could enter 9th grade taking a grade level college prep program?  What if we could provide targeted support throughout 9th grade to ensure that students could learn the skills necessary for success to provide them with the opportunity to enter some honors level classes later in their high school career?

A third way students struggle in high school occurs when students have trouble balancing a full curricular program with co-curricular and athletic activities.  Students who participate in high-level varsity athletics may neglect their studies during the sports season.  In some cases, warnings are issued by academic teachers and students do not have the wherewithal to make adjustments in their time management or study skills to ensure that they keep up academically.  Because of the way eligibility works, students may begin to experience dips in academic performance during one athletic season and these dips solidify into failure that extends beyond the athletic season.  This pattern of failure becomes too difficult for the student to break and these students may begin to experience failure in multiple classes.

What if students had a way to build and practice those time management skills concurrently with their athletic seasons?  What if students could be identified at the first signs of struggle to receive targeted interventions that might help them maintain passing grades early on before a pattern of failure develops?

When this struggle happens, we put supports in place, like pairing a student up with a transition counselor who helps the student navigate their way back to academic success.  We rely on teachers to utilize Tier 1 interventions, such as working with a student one-on-one after school.  Most high schools don’t have much flexibility when it comes to Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports, which are small group settings where students can work with a teacher building specific skills.  It is a challenge to provide students with individualized help in specific subjects in most high schools due to the way the schedule works.  The only real tool we have to support struggling students currently is to ask teachers to reduce the workload down to “essential work” and forgive other work.   Students go forward with gaps in knowledge or skills.  Most high school schedules don’t provide much flexibility or time for students to get back on track.  The only way to provide this time is to take it away from another course, which is a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scenario.

I believe that all stakeholders in a school can work together to answer the questions posed above in order to provide timely support to help students who experience some form a struggle over their time in high school.  As educators, we have to commit to teaching and supporting ALL STUDENTS, so we have to be willing to look closely at our practice inside and outside the classroom to make adjustments that benefit all students, but especially our students who struggle.

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