School board questions failed quarter program
While schools in the district operate somewhat autonomously on many matters, it became clear last Monday during a specially called meeting that the Carbon Board of Education wants to know what the individual campuses are doing, especially when it comes to academic programs.
"Site based or not, programs like the one that has been going on at Mont Harmon Junior High need to go to the administration for approval," said Jim Leonard, the board's president.
Leonard was commenting on an alternative program for students to get credit for failed quarters of math at the school. In the past, making up grades consisted of a zero hour or other ways to make up credit and obtain the concepts for math advancement.
Since more advanced math skills require earlier concepts to be understood fully, this seemed to be the only logical way to be sure students acquire those skills.
But in the last year, the Mont Harmon math department came up with a program that allowed students to catch up with lost credit from a past quarter by doing well in the present quarter.
For instance, if a student failed the first quarter of math at the school, they could work hard, get the concepts down in the more advanced work of the next quarter and the school would apply the grade they got in the later quarter to the failed quarter as well.
A student could theoretically fail in the fall quarter of school and then get an A in the winter quarter and have his fall quarter grade changed to an A.
"This came about because of frustration we had about zero hour at Mont Harmon," said Robin Hussey, math specialist at the school. "The same students kept failing at math and they chose to fail. And that was because 95 percent of them didn't make it because they didn't do the work they were supposed to do."
Hussey also explained that because of poor funding few teachers wanted to take on the extra burden of a zero hour. In addition, zero hours were viewed as a difficult way to get anything accomplished because that class hour had students from every grade and skill level.
"Under those circumstances it was hard to prepare a meaningful lesson," she explained.
She also spoke about make up packets of the type the high school uses. She said the math department at Mont Harmon worried that using those made it so that kids could make up 10 weeks of work in two weeks by completing a packet.
"I submit to you that the changing behavior is much different than just sending students to zero hour," she said. "This program gives them a chance to be successful and there is no chance for them to make it up in two weeks. There still are kids that have chosen to fail but it puts the responsibility back on them."
Hussey pointed out that the program originated when she attended a workshop at Granite School District in Salt Lake County and that district's math specialist presented the program to those present. The idea was refined for use at Mont Harmon by the math department and presented to the former administrator at the school.
"We had the students sign contracts for the program," stated Hussey. "Of those who signed a contract about half or more succeeded in the program."
David Armstrong, the districts superintendent said he also supported the program because he thought it was effective.
"I stand with the teachers at Mont Harmon on this," he said. "We as a district should be student focused and having struggling students take an extra hour a day just adds a burden. Zero hour also costs the district a lot of money."
The superintendent also went on to explain that since math is hierarchal, and processes are learned from the simple to more complex, a student couldn't succeed in the next quarter without learning the concepts from the one he failed.
Barbara Mead, a math teacher at the school said that the program has produced some good results.
"Students performed much better by using this program," she said. "There are a lot of success stories at the school because of it."
But despite what the supporters said, a number of other educators in the district were not in favor of such a program, especially since they had not been informed about it.
"I was shocked about this being done in math at the junior high," said Jim Thompson, an English teacher at Carbon High. "What's to keep a student from having a great time in the first quarter of the year and then making up for it the second quarter? What does this tell a kid who works hard in the first quarter and turns his work in on time?"
Thompson also said he thought such a program could never be used in language arts, which is one of the reasons the alternative math program at Mont Harmon came to light at the district level. The English department there had requested to use a similar program at the school.
Hussey said she agreed with Thompson that the program could not be used in the English department, but emphasized that the idea works well in math because it changes students behaviors from not doing their work to completing and handing it in. Once the habit is developed, it continues.
"This is the most difficult option for students as opposed to zero hour," she said. "I think there is nothing as unfair as expecting equal results from unequal students."
However, the concern of some was that if it was offered at Mont Harmon, it might impact not only high school graduation but also the two other junior highs in the district.
"My only question is what I do if a parent comes to me and wants this for their kid," said Tom Montoya, the principal at Helper Junior High. "We don't even offer zero hour because of the funding available and the size of our school. What do I tell them?"
Carol Wells, the principal at East Carbon High School which also encompasses the junior high for east county, took a neutral stance on the issue because she said her school is in a bit of a different situation.
"East Carbon is small enough to get kids turned around if they have problems," stated Wells. "I don't want to say whether such a program is good or bad because I don't understand enough about it. However we do get kids from Mont Harmon that come up to our school that ask about the program. I think we just all need to be on the same page."
The board members each individually took turns talking about how they felt about the situation. Board member Grady McEvoy said he was concerned about kids abusing such a system, about the difference in the programs from one junior high to another and that he was very concerned about how to calculate that first quarters grade so that it was fair. There was some discussion on this point and suggestions ranged from just giving students a passing grade to rectify an F in the first quarter to Well's idea of just giving them a P.
Board member Boyd Bell said he was concerned about transferring credit to the high school in such a situation and also about how it could affect grade point averages down the road.
Walt Borla, the board member from Helper, said he worried about setting different standards at different schools within the district.
Board member Debbie Blackburn took a little different tack about the program.
"I think people should be applauded for thinking outside the box," she told the gathered group. "But this has been a communication problem that needs to be solved."
Leonard had the last word on the situation saying that he agreed with many of the concerns that he had heard in the meeting.
"This affects a lot of schools and it's a problem when the board doesn't know about something like this," he said. "Whether our programs are site based or not, these kinds of things need to go to the administration for approval."
The board decided to let the program continue and would not make a decision on it until they could study the academic research that has been done on other programs like it. Armstrong suggested the program now in place at Mont Harmon could a be a pilot for a district wide program as well.
That review and decision will take place at a later date.