When we first opened the doors to Vista Visions Academy three years ago I believe we attracted students who were looking for an alternative to the traditional way to do school, but the students who were enrolling did not have the skills or mindset to learn and work independently. Many of our high school students were failing courses by mid-semester because they simply not doing their work. I believe these students did not come to us prepared to manage their time independently, and many were not prepared for the rigor that our program offered. At mid-semester we realized we had a problem on our hands, and the high school team met to discuss our approach. We decided to implement the Incomplete rule. If a student was failing a course because they were not completing the work, they received an Incomplete on their report card and had the opportunity to go back and complete their work so that they could earn the credits and a grade. We were excited to be on the same page, as a team, with the idea that we didn't want students to fail. Unfortunately that approach didn't work well for the students we had enrolled that year. It seems the 'I' on their report card didn't convey any sense of urgency. Our students were not going back to complete the work, and the 'I's were remaining. For second semester we changed the policy and told students they would receive the 'F' on their report card if they did not complete the course, but that if they did work with their teachers to complete and revise work to meet competency, we could issue a Change of Mark. That 'F' on their report cards did motivate them, and we did see more course completion as a result, but we still had too many students failing. By the end of the school year when we looked at the data, we knew we had to do something different.
We did a couple of things. First, several teachers committed to writing a course over the summer titled Supporting Student Success (S Cubed). This course would be available on our LMS (Haiku) and students would meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9-12 in that class. The class was designed so that the first hour was dedicated to working on modules within the course that introduced the concepts of blended and online learning norms, how to use Haiku, time management, study skills,literacy skills, etc. After a short break students would then go back to the class to work on their individual course work, with a teacher available for support and assistance. We also designed the master schedule to add extra math and writing tutorials so that students can come in to receive the extra help that they need. We also had conversations about how each individual teacher could modify the curriculum as needed to meet individual student needs, and in some severe cases, several teachers have done just that- with encouraging results in the academic and emotional well being of the students.
This year we are seeing much more achievement and success from our students. We are assigning far fewer F's, and the academic culture among students has shifted . There is a more serious tone established on campus, and a genuine, mature camaraderie exists between the high school students and faculty. From a leadership standpoint I think that the decisions that were made along the way were the right ones, as we learned a lot as the school culture emerged and developed. We have learned to meet students where they are, and go from there. I do believe that it is never too late to learn. I do believe in competency-based education. As teachers we are charged with many duties, and we have to remember that we are dealing with young people. They are learning. They will make mistakes. I think we are the ones who will make the mistakes if we see our jobs as educators as simply rule and policy enforcers. I know why the rules are there. We are trying to maintain order and teach basic good behavior and respect. That is great. But it is not the POINT of education. When we have students who have trouble staying within our set path, and they wander off or stop walking altogether, we have to offer them some other alternatives. We have to show them another path. It's the only way they will see possibility. People grow and mature at different rates. People learn life lessons at different times and for different reasons. We need to offer our empathy, wisdom and life knowledge to help these young people see that it is never too late to learn. Sometimes, as teachers, we are teaching students the Pythagorean Theorem or thesis statements, and sometimes we are teaching them that we care and that Life offers second chances or alternative paths.
I don't know what I can actually put in place at my school site that will address the idea of the Never Too Late To Learn concept this semester, but I have some ideas. I'd like to start a peer tutoring program so that students can get together to help each other and to study. I don't know if we have the budget for it, but I'd also like to start an AVID program at our site and have tutors from Cal State San Marcos come to our site to work with students. I'd like to revisit the idea of personalizing the curriculum for students as needed so that it becomes part of the toolbox for all teachers. Another thing that I think we will be ready to put in place for next school year is standards-based grading. If we are truly moving to mastery-based courses, it shouldn't be about points and seat time, it should be about competencies and standards met. I can commit to making this concept an agenda item at staff meetings this semester so that we can implement it as a school for next school year. I feel this is within my sphere of influence because we have talked about it as a staff for awhile now, and I feel that we are ready to tackle that endeavor.
I am proud to work at a school with empathetic, innovative, and forward-thinking admin, teachers, and staff. It makes me feel like anything is possible. I know we all have our students' best interests at heart, and we want to see them succeed. I can honestly say that the high school team I work with will have honest, non-egocentric conversations about what is good for kids. I feel so fortunate to work with these people.