Academic intervention

Posted Dec. 11, 2009, at 7:26 p.m.

No Child Left Behind, the federal educational program aimed at boosting student achievement, has been much maligned for its dizzying bureaucracy and emphasis on test scores. The coastal community of Searsport, however, has turned the mocked mantra into reality. It should be a model for others.

Searsport District High School Principal Gregg Palmer explains that four years ago, the school implemented a system of academic intervention. If a student has failed to complete his biology homework, he is referred to the intervention. If a student struggles to understand geometry proofs, she is referred. Students often refer themselves.

The intervention concept sounds punitive, but it is not. Mr. Palmer explains that at one time or other, every student will be in the intervention system. If a straight-A student is out sick for three days, she must use the intervention service to catch up.

Struggling students and those who have not completed assignments are required to meet with their teachers before the day is out, either during one of two daily lunch periods, a “lab” period (which replaced the traditional study halls) or after classes.

The school distinguishes between effort-based interventions and skills-based intervention. The biology student’s effort is the focus for his teacher, while the geometry student will get repeated help grasping a concept.

The intervention program turns student ranking on its head. A student who struggles writing an essay is essentially not allowed to settle for a C-, Mr. Palmer says. The goal is to have everyone master the core classes, even if it takes until July. The school holds seasonal “academies” to bring along those students who struggle. A final grade won’t reflect that it may have taken a student longer to master a skill.

“We’re trying to get them to a baseline academic achievement,” he says and compares the interventions to laser surgery as opposed to exploratory surgery.

The intervention program is inspired by the work of Rick and Becky Dufour and their book, “Whatever It Takes.” Staff from several schools have visited Searsport to see the program in action, and Education Commissioner Susan Gendron has praised it.

It’s hard work for students and the faculty and staff. If after multiple interventions, there are no results, faculty and staff look at social and emotional causes or consider a special ed referral. But to date, the results are impressive. In past years, 12 percent to 14 percent of freshmen had to repeat a class. Since the intervention program, fewer than 2 percent repeat.

Rather than simply mandating that no child be left behind, the school has found a successful way to bring them all along.

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