By Erin Albanese
Manuel Ochoa’s face lit up in a smile. He had just learned he will exit the middle school’s new School within a School Program at the end of the marking period. After several years working to get on track academically, he will return to the regular classroom.
For the past few weeks in the SWAS intervention program, Manuel has excelled. The seventh-grader covered a lot of ground in history and language arts classes, and had achieved an 80 percent overall score. “I just worked,” he said, explaining his progress. “It has helped me a lot.”
Led by teacher Joe Marsiglia, SWAS has eight students enrolled and is located in a classroom at the end of a quiet wing of the school. Students who have been identified for failing grades and behavior problems– most have been suspended at least once this fall– work on subjects on computers, regularly getting help from Marsiglia. They are together all day, even for lunch.
“We have some students flying through the coursework, which is pretty awesome,” Marsiglia said. “They get to own their learning.”
Students are working at their own pace, most making steady gains.
“We are finding behavior is better,” said Assistant Principal Beth Travis. “They are focusing on their work. A lot of the students like the fact that they can put on the headphones and get lost in the academics and shut out the outside influences.”
SWAS addresses several issues to break the all-too-common cycle of poor grades, poor attendance and poor behavior.
“We are trying to think outside of the box,” Travis said. “We need something that’s going to help our students. We are finding it’s a frustrating cycle when they act out and make a poor decision in class. They get sent home for their actions; they come back the next day and they are already behind in their schoolwork, so they act out again.”
The class is the most intensive part of a three-tier system the middle school uses to help at-risk students. At the beginning of the school year, teachers began monitoring students’ grades and behavior if they showed signs of academic, attendance and behavior problems. Marsiglia met weekly with those who showed a continued pattern of problems, discussing behavior goals and grades.
Finally, he met twice a week with students facing suspension and failing grades, even sitting with them during classes to get to know them. From there, staff identified eight students who were most at risk to start SWAS.
Each student has a chance to enter or exit the program each quarter. Three, including Manuel, are now on track to exit, which will open up three new spots for at-risk students.
After eighth grade, Travis said, students with academic and behavior problems sometimes switch to alternative schools. “Our hopes are to keep the students here at school to teach them better behavior choices, and to get them to pass the classes and get them the knowledge they need to move on to the next grade.”
While the program is not punitive, returning to the regular classroom can be a strong incentive for students. “They want to be with their friends,” Travis said. “It’s middle school. They are very social.”
Added Attention Helps
Signs of success include more content students. “Since this has started, none of these students have been suspended,” Travis said. “We have not had one student with one discipline referral.”
Marsiglia said the 1-to-8 teacher-student ratio allows him to get ahead of any potentially bad behavior. “(SWAS) takes them out of a class where they want to be the king or queen. Instead of being the focus of attention, they all have their own individual attention, with me.”
Seventh-grader Teron Collier said SWAS has helped him get better grades.
“There aren’t a lot of kids in the class, so I get help from the teacher more,” he said.
The school’s community coordinator also spends an hour in the classroom each day to provide added support.
There have been other success stories, he said. One student discovered she really likes history and geography. “She didn’t know it until she was in here. Now, she’s so far ahead in that class,” Marsiglia said.
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