Summer school changes offer opportunities for student success

Summer school changes offer opportunities for student successBy SUSAN BURGESS

News Review Correspondent

An innovative online curriculum is allowing Burroughs and Mesquite high school students a chance to fix past mistakes, reinforce skills and get a jump start on the next school year, while still leaving plenty of time for a summer break.

According to Summer School Principal Chad Houck, 275 students had taken advantage of the new format, which uses the computer-based APEX Learning curriculum and Burroughs’ existing Chromebook computers. With APEX, students work at their own pace, reading and taking notes to prepare for course assess-ments.  While teachers are available for guidance, students also have access to audio and text-based supports built into the system.

A student must earn a C or better to complete a course. Because students take a pre-test for each unit, they are also able to test out of units for which they can already show mastery. Motivated students have been able to complete the coursework in considerably less time than they would a traditional summer- school course.

“I keep hearing three things from students,” said Houck. “Students say they are doing way more work than in regular school, they are learning more and notes actually do help.” He said he attributes this perception to the individualized nature of the program.

“From the student feedback, one of the key characteristics for them is that they get to move at their own pace. In some cases they are not bored because they are not held back by the pacing guide and on the other end of the spectrum, they are not left behind by the pace of the class.”

For many students attending summer school, the goal is simply credit recovery. They need to make up a class so they can be on track for graduation. For others, like Darnell Prince, the shift to APEX’s college-preparatory curriculum is allowing them to bolster their eligibility to apply to a four-year college or university.

After successfully completing his APEX coursework, Prince said he no longer has to worry about a freshman-year D on his transcript. What’s more, he maintains, he actually learned something.

“I found the program extremely straightforward. I was able to move at my own pace, and the technology made it easier,” said Prince.

Like many of his computer-savvy peers, Prince prefers typing his notes and assignments rather than handwriting them. He said he felt at ease in the online-learning environment.

Prince’s success story is not atypical, according to the summer school teachers.

“This year with the online format the students are more engaged and learning more, and discipline is not an issue,” said BHS teacher Misty Pate, a veteran summer school instructor. “The students are motivated to get through and pass the curriculum to allow them to enjoy the rest of their summer or to take another class.”

She described the experience of one student who has a reputation for disrupting class and not getting along with teachers.

“This opportunity of being on APEX  has made him feel successful and more positive,” said Pate. “When last I checked, he was completing his third class.”

Burroughs Spanish Teacher Sandra Castro has been working closely to support English Learner (EL) students in the summer school program. While the online, text-based format presents some difficulties for students whose home language is not English, she too has been pleased by the program’s impact.

“During the introductory week of this model, I saw much resistance from students,” said Castro. “Many didn’t want to stay in the same classroom the entire day, while others didn’t like that the teacher wasn’t actually teaching the class in its entirety. Others seemed overwhelmed by the level of the program and the expectation of earning 70 percent or better to move through.”

She said that it took a week or so for many of them to “buy into” APEX — but they did. APEX’s self-paced model “helped the students change their way of thinking when they realized that they could move swiftly through units and finish summer school before the end of the six weeks.”

The key, she said, was for students to realize they had to learn the curriculum to move on.

“Once many of them figured out that if they wanted out of summer school they needed to put the work in, many of them stepped it up,” said Castro. Many of them realized that this program works at their individual pace and that it doesn’t allow them to give up on the material. “During the school year, these students can’t see the fruits of their labor and become overwhelmed by the pace of their classes.”

Keeping students from feeling overwhelmed and helping them stay on track are Castro’s primary responsibilities this summer. This is the first year that summer school has had an EL support teacher, and based on students’ course completion efforts, the results appear to be paying off.

“I think students stay ‘under the radar’ during the school year and having someone like me walking around keeping them on their toes has helped,” said Castro. “I’m their cheerleader and their disciplinarian. If they’re not using class time wisely, I change their learning environment. Sometimes I’ll walk around and give them positive reinforcement. They see that someone is reaching out to them and they know I care about their success. I have seen many of them go from ‘Who is this lady and why does she keep bothering me about my work?’ to ‘Hey, Mrs. Castro, I passed! Aren’t you proud of me?’”

While they tout the program’s overall success, Houck and the participating teachers ac-knowledge that this was a learning year for APEX. They are already taking notes for next summer’s implementation.

“I think overall the program and method of delivery have a lot of promise,” said Houck. “The program needs refinement, but it also needs to continue to go on and see it through.”

Shirley Kennedy, SSUSD assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said the APEX program complements efforts to bolster 21st-century learning skills.

“Sierra Sands is in the process of incorporating blended-learning opportunities for students so that they have the knowledge, skills and experience necessary to compete in a highly technical world,” said Kennedy. “Shifting to online coursework in summer school supports these efforts.

“Students are responding positively to this new mode of learning.”

EL Support Teacher Sandra Castro (left) helps Burroughs student Jessica Garcia with her online coursework. - Photo by Susan Burgess

Story First Published: 2014-07-02