Texas District Provides Extra Help the Moment the Need Arises
EL PASO, TEXAS — A while back, Principal Lucia Borrego and some of her teachers from Helen Ball Elementary School in El Paso, Texas, crossed the border into Mexico to visit a factory.
The first step on the assembly line at this factory, which produced four-wheelers, was to stamp a serial number on the vehicle’s chassis. Once that number was stamped, the vehicle was “alive” and had to make it to the end of the production line, the factory’s manager told Borrego and her teachers.
There were times when a vehicle might need to be pulled off the line for a little extra work, but once the issue was fixed, the four-wheeler was put back on track to reach the end of the production line in top-notch, top-quality form, said Borrego.
When Borrego told this story recently, it wasn’t clear at first where she was going with it, the parallels between assembly lines and elementary schools not being immediately obvious.
However, she made the point that, if a factory can ensure that every single four-wheeler makes it to the end of the line in top form, shouldn’t a school system have the same level of commitment to its students?
“So our kids are going to go through the school system, and we might have to pull them aside and work with them individually. … But they have to make it; they have to graduate,” said Borrego.
“They have a number; they’re born; they’re alive. We can’t just discard them. And I think it’s too easy for us to do that with kids, and so that’s kind of the mentality we’ve taken, little things like that. No excuses.”
Borrego’s analogy neatly captures one of the guiding principles in the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso County, Texas: that the district has a responsibility to graduate all of its students and, in order to achieve that, students should be given additional assistance from the moment issues crop up.
Since 1995, Texas has had, in its legislature-adopted education code, a list of 13 criteria it believes indicate a student is at risk of dropping out of school.
This list includes criteria related to academic performance — a student who was held back at least once meets the criteria as does a student in grades 7 through 12 whose average grades in two core classes fall below 70 — as well as indicators linked to a student’s socioeconomic standing (a child who is homeless automatically would be at risk in Texas) or behavior (expulsion during the current or previous school year is an indicator).
About six years ago, the Soccoro district developed a system for tracking students at all grade levels who are deemed “at risk” of dropping out and paired it with a mentoring program at the middle and high school levels; individual schools have developed unique approaches to getting their students extra help, ensuring that students do not fall too far behind.
“Something that I’ve always believed in is that all kids, all kids will meet our expectations,” said Borrego. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re ADHD, whether they have divorced parents, whether they come from a broken home, whether their parents have never had any education.”
Borrego continued later: “I tell (my teachers), ‘Do not accept excuses, and do not make excuses.’ I don’t care if they have three eyes, I don’t care if they’re missing a leg, I don’t care, I don’t care. They have to be successful, and it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re successful, and we can’t make excuses for them. “
“So (the teachers) know better (than) to come in and tell me, ‘Well, it’s ’cause the parents.’ They will never tell me that, ever, ever, ever, because I won’t accept that.”
Socorro ISD, a district which has about 42,600 students and covers the city of Socorro and parts of El Paso, faces a number of challenges. It is growing at a rate of about 3 percent a year with some of the influx coming from military families stationed at nearby Fort Bliss and some coming from families that immigrate from Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso.
Billboards advertise new housing developments on corner after corner even as some of the district’s students live without running water in a neighborhood known as Sparks.
The district’s rapid growth does protect it from the ongoing budget woes at the state level. (Texas is facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.) The state funds individual districts based on their average daily attendance; as that figure goes up, so does the payment from the state, according to a district spokeswoman.
Additionally, even though Socorro has not raised its property tax rate, the tax base is growing with every new home that is built across the district.
About 75 percent of its students come from low-income families, 96 percent of its students are minorities and almost a quarter of the district’s students have limited proficiency in English.
(In the Socorro district, there are 344 bilingual/English-as-a-second-language certified teachers out of a total of about 2,500 teachers.)
The district also had some turnover at the superintendent level, cycling through three superintendents, two of them interim, from 2006 to 2009 when Xavier De La Torre was hired to lead the district. Prior to joining Socorro, De La Torre was an associate superintendent in the Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District.
Despite these challenges, the district had a graduation rate of almost 82 percent in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available.
Texas has changed both its dropout rate calculation and its graduation requirements in recent years, adopting a more rigorous dropout definition in 2006 and raising the passing standard for the exit-level state test in 2006 and 2007, which makes long-range comparisons difficult.
However, since 2007, the district’s four-year graduation rate has increased from 78.1 percent to 81.9 percent, and the graduation rate among students deemed “at risk” has increased from 69.7 percent to 77.2 percent.
In 2009, the district’s annual dropout rate, which measures how many students dropped out of school that year, was 1.5 percent, a slight decrease from 2007.
It should be noted that different states have different graduation requirements, making it difficult to draw a direct comparison across state lines.
However, the graduation rate for the Socorro district is above the state average by about 1.3 percentage points and its annual dropout rate is below the state number by 1.4 percentage points. New Bedford’s graduation rate in 2009, the most recent year for which comparisons can be made, was about 25.8 percentage points below the state rate and its dropout rate about 5.5 percentage points above the state average.
A call to ARMS
About seven years ago, Maria Arias, the Socorro district’s director of state and federal programs, realized that teachers didn’t really know what the dropout criteria were or why some of their students were at risk, despite those criteria having been in place for almost a decade and despite the fact that teachers at the middle and high school levels had one period a day dedicated to their at-risk students.
So Arias and her team decided to create an online system that would quickly and easily allow teachers to see which students in their classes were at risk and — most importantly — why.
“It started with a sheet of paper,” said Arias. “I love to draw, and I started drawing.”
Arias took her sheet of paper to the district’s systems administrator and said: We need a system that looks like this, but is online.
The system, known as At-Risk Management System or ARMS, went online in August 2005 at five schools. Six months later, it was rolled out across the district.
Teachers are required to document, at least every three weeks, what interventions they’re using to help their at-risk students. This documentation is not intensive: just a notation of what strategy or intervention the teacher tried and a few sentences about how the student is doing.
That was something teachers were already doing, but on paper instead of online, said Elva Torres, associate director of state and federal programs.
“They had stacks and stacks, and come summertime, if we had to find documentation, we’d have to go searching,” said Torres.
According to Arias and Torres, getting teachers to switch from one system to another was a struggle at first, but teachers quickly came to see the value in the new approach: it ultimately cut down on paperwork while improving oversight for the district’s neediest students and allowing for increased collaboration between those students’ teachers.
(There is a teachers’ association in the Socorro district, but it does not have the collective bargaining rights that the New Bedford teachers union has.)
Schools designate an at-risk coordinator, typically an assistant principal, who has access to school-level reports that show, on the student side, the number of at-risk students and which of those students are receiving interventions, and on the teacher side, which teachers are documenting interventions and which aren’t.
The system, which also collects information on students’ attendance, grades and test scores, archives all of the at-risk interventions entered into it, allowing Johnny’s eighth-grade teacher to see what did or did not work for Johnny in seventh grade, according to Torres.
The ARMS database was so successful that the district went on to build a second database, known as the Online Student Profile or OSP, that has an entry for every single student, not just those who are at risk; at-risk students have an extra tab in their OSP entry that links to ARMS.
In January 2009, the district rolled out a mentoring program called Academic Reinforcement Mentoring Initiative, or ARMI at its middle and high schools.
This program provides all students, those at-risk and those not, with a daily, 30-minute mentoring period, which focuses on supplemental academic instruction as well as character-building exercises.
All teachers at a school are assigned an ARMI group of 16 to 20 students who are typically grouped by area of highest need.
On a Wednesday morning in early May, students at Socorro High School — a large, comprehensive high school whose 2,800 students are about 87 percent low-income and about 98.7 percent minority — streamed through hallways and across campus on their way to their mentoring period.
Julie Olivo, a tall, lanky math teacher, got her kids, a group of freshmen, settled down quickly and launched into a discussion about anxiety — what causes it and what students can do about it.
“What are some of the things that cause you guys to get anxious?” she asked her group, reminding them of the conversation they had started the day before.
Students called out: test scores, teachers, friends, relationships.
“How could your parents support you?” asked Olivo.
One girl said, in a low voice, “To tell you that they’re proud of you.”
Down the hall, the kids in Raul Caldera’s class, also focused on how to manage stress and anxiety, were kicking off an experiment, trying different stress-relieving techniques and then writing about how they worked (or didn’t) in their journals.
OK, said Caldera, reading from a list of suggested techniques, we’re going to try thinking positive, slow, deep breathing, belly breathing.
A student interrupted: “Belly breathing, how do you do that?”
“I have no clue,” said Caldera to shouts of laughter from his group.
The district’s mentoring program connects students to one more adult at their schools who can advocate for them and look out for them, adding an extra layer of support to ensure that as few students as possible slip through the cracks.
While the district initiatives on dropout prevention are, of course, implemented at Socorro High School, the school goes beyond mere compliance, said Miguel Serrano, in his fourth year as principal of the high school. Serrano had been an assistant principal there for five years prior.
“We’re not a compliant campus,” he said. “We’re a performing campus.”
School officials closely track all of Socorro’s students, and come January, parents of any seniors in danger of not graduating are called in for a meeting.
Teachers and administrators at the school, including Serrano, “adopt” students who are on the verge of not making it to graduation, providing the kids with academic support and encouragement.
Additional tutoring is provided for students who haven’t passed the state test — passing the 11th grade test is a state graduation requirement — and Serrano meets with any kids who are skipping their tutoring sessions.
If, despite all those efforts, a student still drops out, he can expect a knock on his door from the principal himself.
“I like to go personally,” said Serrano. “We’re relentless here.”
The efforts are paying off: in 2009, the most recent year for which data was available, the school had an 86 percent graduation rate, which is about 5.4 percentage points higher than the state average and is an increase of almost 7 percentage points from the prior year, according to data on the Texas Education Agency website.
New Bedford High School’s graduate rate in 2009 was 60.3 percent, according to information on the Massachusetts education department website. In 2010, the high school’s graduation rate dropped to 55.8 percent.
9th grade isolated
Across the district at El Dorado Ninth Grade Academy, a brand new school with about 905 students, Principal Troy Byrne is focused on making sure that all of his freshmen finish the year with the credits they’re supposed to have. He wants his kids to start off 10th grade without any deficits, on track to graduate in time.
Isolating a group of ninth graders in their own building, removed from the pressures that come with being the youngsters in a much larger group of students in a traditional, grade 9-12 high school, is a new experiment and one that likely has an expiration date as there are already plans to turn the building the school inhabits into a full high school as the district continues to grow.
But for now, Byrne likes getting the freshmen on their own: “Here they can’t get lost,” he said. “We focus heavily on the high school game (to come) of, ‘Here’s your credits. Here’s your GPA. Let’s talk colleges. Let’s talk about life skills.’”
ED9 as it’s known in the district, has a computer lab — the Aztec Learning Center — that is open both before and after school for students to do extra, online learning using a program called “Compass.”
“Schools usually use it (the program) for seniors who need credits,” said Byrne. “Instead of waiting until they’re 19, 20 years old trying to fix … the problem, what we’re trying to do is make sure there’s not a problem.”
Two main groups of students use the lab: those who need a little extra help on a particular concept or section and those who are in danger of losing credit because of excessive absences.
Viola Lares, who runs the lab, works with the school’s curriculum coach to monitor performance of all the school’s students, and every three weeks, a new crop of kids who are starting to fall behind is brought into the lab for some additional online work.
By early May, all but a handful of the school’s more than 900 students were on track to finish the year with all their credits intact, according to Byrne.
Lunch and learn
In 2009, at the end of Jason Long’s first year as principal at Ensor Middle School, about 157 of the school’s 700 students had to attend summer school. At the time, they represented more than a fifth of the school’s enrollment.
Last summer, fewer than 60 students, or less than 8 percent of the student body, had to come to school in the summer, said Long.
The difference between the two years? A new program, called “lunch and learn,” that Long and the school’s curriculum coach, Rachel Guerra, implemented during the 2009-2010 school year.
Long said he wanted to get away from tutoring that happened before or after school or on Saturday and instead try to maximize the opportunities for extra help during the normal school day.
Looking for where he could squeeze some extra time out of the day, he realized that the school had a scheduled 40-minute lunch break, even though the state only required 20 minutes for lunch.
So he decided to steal the first half of lunch for students who needed a little more time to get caught up on school work and to work on foundational skills.
Students receive a graded progress report every three weeks; working from those, Guerra compiles a list of all students who are failing two or more classes. Those students get pulled for “lunch and learn,” where they do make-up work or extra-credit work and get assistance from Guerra, for three weeks. If they manage to pull up their grades — and none of their other grades have slipped — they are released in three weeks to enjoy their full lunch period.
By early May of this year, the second year the program’s been in effect, less than 2 percent of the school’s students had failing grades in core subjects.
“It’s a lot of work to keep up with, but I mean, the results have been … it’s one of the few things that I can put numbers on sand say, ‘This is super effective,’ ” said Long.
The program has also made it easier to spot kids who may need more intensive interventions or support: students who are repeat attendees at the lunch sessions are referred for extra evaluations to see if there may be some type of undiagnosed disability, whether’s a hearing loss, a vision problem or dyslexia, said Guerra.
“It’s real-time intervention,” said Long. “And, you know, 95 percent of the time, it’s just motivation. They’re not following through on homework. … I don’t know what it is, but we catch them right there and we say, ‘You have to do this.’”
The program has been so successful that principals at some of the district’s other middle schools are copying Long’s idea, according to a district official.
It’s not just middle schools that are trying to sneak in extra instructional time wherever they can: about seven miles southwest of Ensor, the students at Escontrias Elementary School have their own version of “lunch and learn.”
Escontrias, a sprawling school of about 1,230 students in grades pre-kindergarten through five just two miles from the Mexican border, used to be one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in the district, according to a district official.
However, in the four years Principal Maggie Aguilar has been in charge, she and her leadership team have turned the school’s performance around, moving its students’ scores from the bottom of the pile to the top.
While Aguilar credits the improvement in her school’s performance to a number of things — she has set high expectations, which she holds teachers accountable for meeting, and she’s tried to increase parental awareness of the value of education — one factor is the intervention groups Aguilar and her leadership team started during the school’s lunch period.
As at Ensor, the groups are based on student assessment data collected every three weeks; teachers will usually choose their four lowest-performing students to participate in the pull-out groups that are typically held during lunch, according to school officials.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, groups of excited first graders sat in groups, each working with a paraprofessional on a different reading-related activity: flashcards in one section of the room, spelling in another, letter sounds in yet another.
“The kids know they’re going to come in here and get a little dose of it,” said Aguilar. “The kids like it. … It’s different from the way the teacher teaches.”
The results have been impressive. In 2007, the year before Aguilar arrived at Escontrias, just 19 percent of its students scored at the commended level in English language arts and math, and just 16 percent scored at the level on in writing, according to information on the state education department website. To achieve a commended score, the top mark on the Texas state test, a elementary-school student typically has to answer about 90 percent of the test’s questions correctly.
Three years later, the scores had skyrocketed, with 41 percent of students receiving a commended score on the ELA test, 49 percent at that level on math, and 52 percent on writing.
In total, 96 percent of the school’s students met the basic passing standard on the ELA and math tests and 98 percent met the standard for writing, according to the state education department’s website.
Despite all the attention that is paid to tracking kids, to helping kids, to making sure they don’t fall behind, there are always going to be students who just aren’t making it.
Several years ago, Socorro decided to open an alternative program just for those kids, the students who with a more flexible schedule, smaller class sizes and a different environment could graduate from high school.
The resulting school, Options High School, was built in a warehouse just minutes from the district’s central office, its industrial roots apparent in the soaring ceilings and spare aesthetic.
The school’s principal, Ray Aguilar, a burly, rough-hewn man, was recruited from a neighboring district to open Options with the promise that he would be given the principal-ship of a new high school in Socorro when it opened a few years later.
When the time came to apply for that other job, Aguilar didn’t even interview.
“I like these kids; I like this kind of stuff,” he said.
All of the credit courses at Options are taught through online modules, which allow students to move at their own pace, while classes to prepare youngsters for the state test are teacher-taught. Schedules are flexible, allowing the teen who works a night job to come in late, and the school’s administrators try to remove as many barriers as possible. If a student is hungry, they find him food; if a student needs someone to look after her child, they help set up day care.
At a school like Options, success is defined less by the numbers and more by the stories of the kids who pass through.
One boy arrived at the school with just four credits toward his high school diploma; one of his parents had committed suicide in front of the boy, leaving much of the burden on him to raise his brothers and sisters. Two years after starting at Options, he graduated and went on to enroll at El Paso Community College.
One girl, at 19, already had four children. When she fled to Phoenix, Ariz., to get away from her abusive boyfriend, Aguilar and others kept checking in with her to ask: Are you in school?
An older student, a mechanic, needed to work to support his children, but didn’t want to come to night school. Aguilar asked his teachers to put together for some modules that he could complete on his own time. He hasn’t graduated yet, but he’s chipping away at the necessary credits, bit by bit.
“You know, everybody says, ‘Well (your kids are) kind of special,” said Aguilar. “They’re just regular kids that have situations. … They don’t have parents; they have kids. You know, there’s not anything different. They have the same brain as everybody else. … We don’t give them any mercy. It’s just that we look at the situation, where a person is a person.”
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