This is just my second year at the big old high school in our little town. Despite the stereotyping that goes on in education about large high schools being places where kids fall through the cracks, I have been pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite. At our high school, the staff has worked as a professional learning community (PLC) for many years. This does not mean that we have everything just right. What it means is that we have teams and time to make sure we work collaboratively to try and get it right.
Our recent semester change-over and end-of-semester exam results period was yet another example of how we are trying to make a difference kid-by-kid-by-kid. Even during teacher job action, where official classroom grades are hard to come by (for readers not from here: BC teachers are in a labour dispute with the Provincial government), our teams of professionals continue to work hard to ensure that students are not falling through the cracks. Here are a few examples:
- Most teachers had already communicated home early and often, letting parents know about student progress and any concerns regarding incomplete work. There were few surprises.
- As the semester came to an end, many teachers worked closely with students to help them get what they needed to be successful in class and on the final. In addition, we added extra time in our schedule for exam preparation and work completion.
- Counsellors and Administrators sat together at the end of the semester to go over the list of kids who were at risk of failing. One name at a time, we went through the list to discuss the individual student challenges and needs for support. This was not a pass-fail conversation. This was a "What can we do to help this kid pass?" conversation.
- There was a creative willingness to start with the learning that the students had already demonstrated, not just automatically relegate them to repeating an entire course.
- Students who were just under that magic 50 percent passing grade were asked to have a conversation with the teacher to see if there was any learning they could still demonstrate to earn a passing grade. Sometimes a counsellor would volunteer to help the student with that conversation.
- Students who were a little further below that pass-fail mark were again discussed one-by-one. Many questions were asked, such as: "What is this student’s graduation plan? What pathway are they on? Does he/she have a learning disability? Does this student need some kind of intervention? Do they need remediation, or do they just need more time and more support? Maybe a support block in the timetable?"
- In some cases, the team determined that it would be best for an individual student to re-do the course content, but this decision was not arbitrary or automatic. The process was thoughtful and personalized.
- In many other cases, we enrolled students into a flexible block of "Credit Recovery" where students would be assigned to a teacher or an administrator who would customize a "completion package" of work for the student to demonstrate the gaps in his or her learning.
- A few teachers volunteered to do this directly with the students who had "failed" their class.
- When the Provincial Exam Results came in from first semester courses and the exam scores were blended with the class scores, teams of teachers again took a close look at the individual success rates of their students. Many suggested ways for the student to legitimately earn an improved grade. Others offered to tutor students prior to taking a re-write on the exam in question.
- Counsellors and administrators met with many students one-on-one to discuss their results, trouble-shoot their challenges, customize their timetables, and find the right combination of pressure and support to help each student be more successful.
Again, this does not mean we’ve got this all right. Taking a closer look at the individuals who are not being successful should prompt us to have deeper conversations about instruction and assessment as well as relationships and student engagement. Are students failing because they don’t live up to our standards and assessment practices, or are our standards and assessment practices failing these kids? Are there better ways to teach? Are there better ways to assess? Are there better ways to timetable students so that they can be more successful? Do some of these kids have gaps in their learning that require different, more intensive intervention? What else can we try?
All good questions. I’m looking forward to continuing to find the answers alongside my colleagues in our professional learning community.