Jason Arnold, assistant principal at North Carroll High School, and Amy Gromada, principal at West Middle School, were part of a team tasked with determining what characteristics define a student who may be considered at-risk, the current interventions in place and resources that could be helpful in the future.
Assembled by Tom Hill, director of secondary schools, the team included middle school teachers, middle and high school administrators and central office staff.
The Times caught up with Arnold and Gromada to find out more about their presentation at the June 10 Carroll County Board of Education meeting on the team's findings and a group of students they call "nontraditional learners."
Q: Who are non-traditional learners? How would you define this group of students? Why not use the term at-risk to describe them?
Arnold: Nontraditional learners are students with emotional, economic, social and/or developmental concerns who need a variety of interventions in order be successful during their academic career. We don't believe at-risk accurately identifies a student. These students are freshly transitioning to the next level (fifth to sixth or eighth to ninth) so they are not established enough to be at-risk. We believe they just have a bent toward a type of learning that isn't catered to in the traditional school environment and have needs that won't be met with a standard approach to school.
Gromada: As a group we believe that all students have an innate ability to learn. The term at-risk seems to have a negative connotation. The term nontraditional infers that the students will learn just differently than most.
Q: How do teachers and administrators identify a student as a non-traditional learner?
Gromada: Students who are not being successful academically or behaviorally are considered nontraditional. Typically these students are not progressing as their peers and may miss class time because of attendance or disciplinary reasons.
Q: Why does the school system need to develop strategies to ensure a successful transition for non-traditional learners?
Arnold: If we don't develop these strategies we run the continued risk of disenfranchising a group of students with great potential. We want to implement these strategies to better help CCPS reach all students.CCPS does not want to rest on the success of the majority of students but very simply has the mission to see all students be successful.
Gromada: Schools are tasked with helping all students grow and develop. No student should be left behind. It is essential that we meet the needs of all learners.
Q: Is the school system seeing a higher number of these students?
Arnold: I would say no.
Gromada: CCPS has historically done an outstanding job of educating all students. There are times when students are not successful or do not have an overall positive experience during their education. Again, our task is to ensure the success of all students and to help them reach their potential.
Q: What are the some of the interventions the school system currently has in place for these students?
Arnold: Schools have time set aside during the day — SET, FLEX, KEY time, PAWS, etc. — for students to see teachers for classes in which they are struggling. Schools have intervention groups and teams of adults that meet and discuss these students and try to develop individualized interventions to help them succeed. High schools have peer facilitators that help give students a fellow student to talk to when they are having difficulties. Schools try to reach parents through school-based activities for families and outreach programs.
Q: What are some of the future interventions you identified to help non-traditional learners?
Arnold: We believe the most impactful interventions are those that allow students to make connections to the school and to an individual in that school. We would like to identify high school students — juniors and seniors — that would have been identified as a non-traditional students and have been successful to become peer mentors for incoming ninth-grade students. We would like to find community members to become mentors to students and work with local businesses to set up service projects that students could start in middle school and continue with as they progress through high school. Eventually we would like to examine the overall structure of the high school schedule and look at ways to introduce more interest-based classes into the ninth- and 10th-grade years.
Q: Do you expect it will be challenging for the school system to meet the needs of non-traditional learners?
Arnold: It will be a challenge. The everyday demands of school, staffing challenges, budget issues and just lack of time make it difficult to implement alternative programs and strategies. That is why it is important for committees like this to exist. It is also important for these committees to strive to develop low-cost, time-efficient strategies that can become reality.
Q: What needs to be done to better serve these students?
Arnold: These students mainly need a creative approach to education. They need a non-traditional approach that helps them to connect to school and feel successful early on. It is often those early success or failures that make or break the career of a nontraditional student and we want to make sure we find out of the box ways to help them experience success.