Nov. 14, 2007
Teachers’ study sessions focus on
By Sarah Horner
Ninth-grade teachers at Denfeld High School are
starting their day a little bit differently this year. Every morning
— before getting swept up into the chaos of classes —
teachers sit down together and discuss the reason they show up for
work each day: students.
The daily conversations are part of a new initiative
at Denfeld called ninth grade core. It’s aimed at ensuring
freshmen get off on the right foot in high school. It’s tied
to Denfeld’s dropout prevention initiative, a three-year grant
the school received to help combat dropout rates.
“He has a major problem with attendance
in my class,” Angelo Florestano said, pointing to a name on
a list of students during a meeting a few weeks ago. Florestano
teaches ninth-grade social studies.
“Really?” asked Becca Moen, a ninth-grade
math teacher. “He is in my class every single day; he has
severe diabetes; I bust him with Swiss Cake Rolls all the time.”
“Well he’s not in mine,” Florestano
said. Then he pointed at another name on the list. “Neither
is he; they are both non-attenders.”
After further discussion the two teachers, along
with other teachers and support staff in the room, determined the
students — who are friends — were leaving Moen’s
class together and taking an early lunch instead of attending Florestano’s
“Maybe they need an escort from my room
to your room so we can make sure they get there,” Moen said.
Another teacher said they should try imposing
lunch detention. Another suggested that teachers be on the lookout
for drug use in case the students are leaving school midday to get
After wrapping up that discussion, teachers moved
on to another student on what some jokingly refer to as their “triage
list.” Teachers — who are split into teams based on
students they have in common — discuss everything from how
a student is doing academically to whether the person sitting next
to them in class could be a distraction.
Then they strategize on how to address issues,
including calling parents or setting up tutoring or meetings with
“It’s that whole idea of investing
up-front to see a big payoff later,” said Tom Tusken, the
ninth-grade coordinator in charge of the program. “When you
have teachers working in teams, they tend to notice things quicker
than they would otherwise. We’re not waiting for report cards
to come out; we communicate early so we can act early.”
Once a week, teams meet with support staff and
school counselors to talk about action plans for individual students.
“So far it’s helping,” said
Gene Grembowski, a ninth-grade honors science teacher. “Before
you were just putting out fires and getting to know the kids on
either extreme. Sometimes the kids in the middle didn’t get
the attention they deserve. With the team approach, we talk about
all the kids right down the alphabet.”
Grembowski said it’s nice to know how students
are doing in other classes so teachers can see how widespread problems
are. “I’m getting to know them quicker so interventions
happen quicker,” he said.
Time is of the essence when students’ success
is involved, Tusken said.
“Students that succeed in ninth grade tend
to succeed all they way through high school; students that struggle
tend to struggle all the way through,” he said.
On top of morning meetings with teams of teachers,
school staff members have been conducting interviews with every
ninth-grader to assess how students are adjusting. The school also
has started ninth-grade-only activities during part of their lunch
hour and has built 10 character lesson plans into the school’s
English curriculum. Freshmen also will attend a Respect Retreat
this winter, Tusken said.
The program at Denfeld is modeled after one that
has been in place at St. Louis Park (Minn.) Senior High School for
nine years. Barb Nelson, a counselor at that school, said it has
been very successful.
“It has made a huge impact; we have cut
our failure rate in half,” she said. She said the program
has decreased the number of discipline referrals in the school as
well as student tardies and absences.
“Kids know what to expect; they learn the
rules of the road,” she said. She said the program also helps
teachers focus on teaching because they know strategies are in place
to help the students who need it.
So far, the program is having mixed results at
Denfeld. A comparison of last year’s ninth-grade data to this
year’s shows that failure rates and unexcused absences are
up while tardies and disciplinary referrals are down, Tusken said.
He added the results were not surprising considering the program
hasn’t been in place for long.
Tusken said he hopes that once the program grows
roots at Denfeld it will start to show in students’ all-around
performance — perhaps enough to justify spreading the program
across the district.
“Anytime you do something in a deliberate
fashion and pay attention to an end goal you have better results,”
he said. “We know where we want to be and we’re working
hard to get there.”