Junior Highs Working to Wipe Out F’s
Over the past several years the junior highs in Alpine District have made significant progress in helping more and more students reach proficiency in testing. But something that is less known is how much the junior highs have cut the failure rate on report cards. More students than ever before are being successful throughout the year. Every year for the past eight years the junior highs have collectively lowered the percentage of F’s that students have earned. The cumulative effect of that incremental progress is dramatic.
From 2006 to 2013, the percentage of F’s has dropped from 6.8% to 1.6%. That is a 76% decrease in the rate of student failure. To give some perspective on what that means to individual students, let’s consider raw numbers. In 2006 students earned 23,249 F’s in ASD junior highs. In 2013 there are several thousand more students in junior high than in 2006, yet the junior highs are on pace to be under 8,000 total F’s for the year. That is only 8,000 out of nearly 475,000 total grades earned this year. Each junior high has made progress on this front, and all are continuing to help more and more students be successful. Suffice to say junior highs are striving to eradicate F’s, and some are getting very close to accomplishing that goal.
So what has changed over the past eight years? Have the junior highs lowered their expectations? Did students get together eight years ago and commit to working harder because their future is at stake? Did we get smarter students? Is this just classic grade inflation? No. In fact, during the same amount of time, student expectations have actually increased, and it also shows on end-of-level test data.
What changed was the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of the adults in the junior highs. As I have talked with the junior high principals, I have learned of three major differences, and all are tied to a culture of Professional Learning Communities that teachers and staff have embraced.
First is that Tier I instruction has improved through collaboration. Teachers have better identified what students need to know and be able to do, and then they are better at identifying when students have not learned it. As principal, Garrick Peterson of Lakeridge said, “Teachers are just so much more aware of what kids need to know and whether or not they learned it.” This is a crucial key to higher student achievement. Traditionally teachers would have taught the material and moved on, unaware of whether students learned or not. Now, the improved initial teaching and effective common assessment has created an awareness that didn’t exist a few short years ago.
The second major change is the systematic interventions schools have in place for students that did not learn in the Tier I instruction. All junior highs have adopted some form of flex, which provides more time and support for students who didn’t learn. In addition to classroom level interventions, the junior highs have adopted other interventions to provide additional help. For example, Mountain Ridge teachers have developed their own credit recovery system in geography so they can remediate their own F’s rather than send students to summer school or East Shore. Lehi Junior has lunchtime interventions for students who are chronically failing. They also have a late bus on Wednesday so some students can stay after school as needed. These types of efforts have led to great results. At Lehi Junior there was a 33% drop in ninth grade F’s between last year and this year.
These efforts all add up to the third thing principals cite as making the difference for students—a major shift in culture. The junior high teachers and staff have shifted from believing that we teach responsibility by giving students F’s to instead believing that we teach students responsibility by holding them accountable to the learning. According to Joe Jensen, principal of OJHS, “Teachers and other adults in the building think and act differently than they did a few years ago.” Brian Jolley of PGJHS echoed that sentiment. He said, “It is awesome to overhear teachers say things like ‘I’ve only got three students left with an F this term’ or ‘I finally got my last failing student up to proficiency.’” At PGJHS, teachers have worked tirelessly to help students succeed. During first term, only 18 total ninth graders (out of 490) had one or more F’s.
While every junior high in ASD is making excellent progress, some have nearly wiped F’s out completely. At Lakeridge last year, only nine students total ended up with F’s on their transcript as they headed to high school. This year they will likely beat that. Orem Junior has systematic interventions in place for all ninth graders that fail a class. By Christmas break this year, every ninth grader who had failed first term had made up those grades at the school. Lakeridge and Orem Junior are both on track (except for rare outliers) to send all ninth graders to the high school on track to graduate. Garrick captured the essence of the shift to a PLC culture when he said, “When teachers at Lakeridge can’t reach a kid and help that student be successful, they feel like they just lost a big game—they take it personally.”
This is a big deal, because there is a strong correlation between failing ninth grade classes and not graduating. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, it is exciting to see the culture of PLC’s that is blossoming in the junior highs. The bottom line is this culture helps more kids succeed, and they are more prepared for the next level.