Denfeld News

Nov. 14, 2007
Duluth News Tribune

Teachers’ study sessions focus on students’ success
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 class.

“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 high.

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 counselors.

“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.”

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