Springfield tries to return students to the right track; Special classes will provide help for some ninth graders

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Poorly performing students need extra attention, and a new program in Springfield schools next year will provide just that, administrators say.

The idea is to create a transition program for about 20 eighth graders having trouble in school – those who have failed three or four core courses.

Next year, instead of being held back, they’ll be ninth graders, taking ninth-grade courses from ninth-grade teachers. But they won’t be doing it at Springfield High School.

Instead, they will take their classes at some unspecified off-campus site, where they won’t be subjected to the hustle and bustle of the high school environment.

With the promise of small classes and intensive, personal instruction, teachers and administrators said that they hope the students will be able to straighten out their academic and social lives and rejoin their old classmates in the 10th grade, according to Cynthia Beekley, assistant Springfield superintendent.

“They may have previously been held back a year so they are already seen as kind of odd ducks, and if we move them ahead, we already know they cannot do the work,” Ms. Beekley said. “They become prime candidates for disciplinary problems and an early dropout.”

The idea comes from the Oregon public school system, which has run a similar program for almost five years.

In that time, about 70 per cent of students have gotten back on track to graduation, with some reaching the honor roll or excelling in extracurricular activities, said Oregon superintendent Robert Pfefferle.

“Somewhere you have to try and stop the cycle of failure,” he said. “It’s critical that the parents and the kids go into this with the attitude that this is something they can do. Sometimes it’s like flipping a light switch on.”

In Oregon, the Transitional High School, as it is known, is run as a separate institution, with its own “principal” and staff and housed in the former Clay Elementary School adjacent to the regular high school.

Classes are kept to 15 to 20 students, and students are not allowed any interaction during the day with the main high school. (Exceptions are made for students exceptional in one or two subjects, who can be mainstreamed for an hour or two a day.) There are 35 students in the Oregon program.

The results have been remarkable, said Clay High School principal Rick Heintschel.

Several transitional graduates are on the honor roll, and – just as important – 85 to 90 per cent of those in the program’s first class in 1994 are still enrolled as seniors.

“We could have lost 50 per cent of them by now without transitional [programming],” Mr. Heintschel said.

A number of students and parents have even asked to stay in the program at the end of ninth grade, he added.

Springfield plans to send a letter outlining the program to the parents of all the eight graders who failed multiple courses during the first semester.

In Oregon, reluctant parents are referred to the parents of transition students from previous school years.

Springfield schools haven’t chosen a site for their program, Ms. Beekley said, but it will not be in the high school (which she said would be confusing) or the middle school (which she said would be demeaning).