3 districts that developed innovative programs targeting at-risk students

Districts of Distinction at-risk category finalists: School District of Springfield Township, Talbot County Schools, Meriden Public Schools
By: | Issue: March 2020
March 12, 2020

Here are three K-12 districts being honored as Districts of Distinction runners-up for developing innovative programs for at risk students. These include initiatives that increased the number of college bound students, provided interventions for struggling students and expanded special ed programs.

1. School District of Springfield Township

Program: FAIL is a Four Letter Word

Challenge: Over four years, a disproportionate number of students failing high school courses were students of color. Also, the number of minority students who failed one or more courses increased each year. Administrators of Springfield Township wanted greater teacher responsibility, intervention and investment in student support systems.

Initiative: The district created multiple interventions for struggling students. Before assigning a failing grade, teachers meet or call parents, (instead of emailing), as well as share concerns with administrators, request more support, help students 1-to-1 and set up mandatory tutoring. Parents receive automated computer notifications every two weeks that warn if their children are at risk of failing, and guidance counselors conduct bi-weekly student check-ins. Parents and students participate in school conferences to discuss potential failures.

Impact: Parents feel more included, while students appreciate the personalized outreach and have gained confidence. “Typically, high school parents hear at the last minute if their child is failing from impersonal progress reports or report cards,” says Superintendent Nancy Hacker. “For some seniors, our program made the difference with them being able to graduate.”

Advice: Conduct comprehensive data analysis, including the reasons behind failing grades. “Identifying factors that contribute to a student’s lack of interest or motivation is critical so that these issues can be overcome,” says Hacker. “Equity means ensuring students have a sense of belonging and need to know that teachers care about how they do, without being judgmental about the … failure.”

2. Talbot County Schools

Program: College-bound Seniors

Challenge: Many students were not pursuing higher education and very few of those who did were accepted into college. Many seniors also considered dropping out of high school to get jobs.

Initiative: “I began by talking to students about the reality of the job market and how education upgrades the type of job and salary they can achieve,” says Jody Tarleton, director of counseling at Talbot County Schools. Now seniors must have 1-to-1 counseling sessions biweekly and meet with an assigned faculty or staff member as part of a weekly mentoring program. Hanging on a wall in the cafeteria are pictures of students who have been accepted to college. “This caught fire and every senior wanted to make it to the wall,” she says.

Impact: Originally, just 9% of students were accepted into college, but since the program was implemented, the number of college bound students has increased. Over the last three years, every student who has applied has been accepted into a college or university. GPAs have increased and more students take the SAT and ACT exams to improve their performance. “This has brought a feeling of hope and excitement to our district and encouraged parents that their children can achieve higher education,” says Tarleton.

Advice: “It’s important to have an open-door policy, allowing students to seek attention or feedback as often as they need it,” she says.

3. Meriden Public Schools

Program: Creating Opportunities and Access for All Students

Challenge: Many students with special needs received specialized services outside of the system. “We wanted to develop a districtwide continuum of services for students to allow them to thrive and grow within their home community,” says Mark Benigni, superintendent of Meriden Public Schools.

Initiative: These special ed programs begin in preschool with early interventions and then include services for students with autism and communication disorders, emotional and behavioral disorders, and multiple disabilities. A newer academy for students in grades 6 through 12 offers a smaller, more supportive environment. The latest innovation is a community classroom for 18-21 year olds at the local YMCA. The district also added a sensory room staffed by a special ed teacher, physical and occupational therapists, and support staff.

Impact: Meriden continues to bring back 8 to 10 outplaced students annually. The number of classrooms offering PreK-12 programs has increased from two to eight. The community classroom serves 25 students. Parents get to stay connected with their neighborhood school, and staff welcome the greater opportunities for communication, says Benigni.

Advice: “Think creatively about how you can reallocate resources, reengineer space, empower staff and collaborate with community partners,” says Benigni. “We did it. You can, too.”