WA-WM district prepares a new learning experience

Students with Ds and Fs would get special educational attention

July 26, 2011

West Allis - A seismic shift is taking place in the education of local students at the intermediate and high schools.

You won't see it on the street, and when local students go back to school this fall, their schools will look exactly the same. Even so, out is the old way of teaching - no matter how skillfully - that accepts the idea that some students will get Ds and Fs.

"To say I taught them and they didn't learn, we're saying that's no longer acceptable," said Superintendent of Schools Kurt Wachholz.

Getting through to students

So, starting this fall, teachers will make a determined effort to find out why a student isn't learning the material and then fixing it.

"We need to do something to make sure our children leave school with the education they deserve," said West Allis-West Milwaukee School Board member Annette Frymark.

The goal is to make Ds and Fs a thing of the past by getting through to students one way or another.

With real results

And dumbing down tests is not the answer - partly because school officials say so and partly because statewide tests showing whether students are working at grade level would reveal deficiencies anyway. Schools that are not doing a good job will have state and federal education officials to deal with.

While many teachers are doing this anyway, this will be a major mind-shift for others, school officials acknowledge. But principals will work with them on how they can adapt their game to win more often.

Even though educators have some good moves these days to get through to kids, winning is still tough when you have a kid who says:

I don't wanna go to school.

You can't teach them if they aren't there. But educators have taken a closer look and found that truancy isn't always because the kids would rather hang out with their friends smoking.

Sometimes they don't want to go to school because they've fallen so far behind that school is a waste of time, said Debra Beyer, grade 6 to 12 coordinator for teaching and learning.

"Bad attendance is a symptom of other problems," she said.

If they are feeling so far behind that they'll never catch up so why even try, the schools will find their academic weaknesses with national standardized Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, testing. The results can now be keyed into a computerized learning system called Compass Learning. Once weaknesses are found, Compass Learning reaches into its storehouse of exercises to give students lots of practice in those soft areas.

In fact, MAP testing will be used increasingly to pinpoint problem areas in all youngsters so that they don't fall behind just because they get hung up in one or two areas.

If the problem is reading, the schools have a new Achieve3000 program to help students progress starting at whatever level they are, Beyer said.

I just don't care about school.

Again, the question is "why?" Beyer said.

Once that is known, educators now have a number of ways to try to engage students so they do care about doing well in school, she said.

For example, West Allis Central High School tried linking attendance with getting to go on a field trip to Great America. And it worked, Beyer said.

Some just don't see the point in going to school.

The problem is that they don't see a clear way from school to a career, she said.

"They need to believe there is hope and there is a clear path," she said.

It will be up to teachers and principals to figure out what is the answer to why a kid doesn't wanna go to school.

I just have a hard time in school.

Some kids do. But teachers will give them special attention by devising individual learning plans for them using MAP and then make sure those plans are working.

And more than that, the high schools will go on the offensive by not even waiting around for kids to fall behind. The schools have already started using a tier system for freshmen in which some are chosen for individual academic plans and others for additional academic support during, before or after school, Beyer said.

Also to jump on a problem quickly, school officials will be watching for grades that drop two points in a subject. When that happens, a student will meet with the academic dean and be involved in more interventions.

Through all their four years of high school, students will have it drilled into them that they are expected to graduate and that they can graduate in four years.

I don't wanna do my homework.

Instead of punishing the student with a poor grade, school officials now are looking at a technique that Nathan Hale Principal Matthew Lesar tried last year with some success.

When a teacher reported a student didn't do his or her homework, together they opened up a manual to look into what a next step might be, Beyer said. That helped both teacher and principal, as well as the student.

I flunked English. My gradepoint was bad before, but now it's really shot.

All is not lost. The high schools have a new credit recovery program enabling students to get a passing grade of C in three weeks of summer school. Because the program focuses just those areas that caused the student to fail, a passing grade can be achieved in just three weeks because just those areas would be the focus, Beyer said.

At Hale, 100 students recovered credit and hope through the new program, she said.

While results will vary despite the schools' best efforts, School Board member George Sotiros said, "Following the plan would be black and white."

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