By Rick Bobrick
Over the past two school years, educators have worked tirelessly to meet the unique challenges presented by the coronavirus emergency. There has been a lot of talk about “re-imagining” our public schools, with few practical specifics being offered. After a major disruption to their normal routines, nothing will be more important than having our middle school students begin the 2021-2022 school year with a new and more challenging set of expectations for grade-level promotion and high school readiness.
The “Fresh Starts” program at Hudson JHS in upstate New York re-set the bar 9 years ago and has never looked back. “Fresh Starts” is an academically demanding promotion policy that offers middle school students a much kinder and gentler approach to standard retention policies. It holds middle school students accountable for their efforts in all classes by creating concrete, timely, and attainable credit goals while providing all of the support they might need during their three-year journey toward high school promotion.
The 180 day, 40 weeks, 4 marking period secondary “school year” is an archaic and counter-productive operational system that needs to be changed. Simply put, it’s just too long, too drawn out, and too limiting. It is one of the main reasons most students find a school “boring,” but worst of all, the intrinsic grading and credit system is mathematically ruthless and unforgiving.
Forcing marginal or struggling students to wait 10 months to find out if they have passed a class and earned credit toward promotion or graduation creates intractable problems for too many students. The “40 week school year” is not the best we can offer even our most serious and motivated secondary students.
The “Fresh Starts” program was originally designed to better prepare our middle school students for New York State’s credit-based high school graduation requirements. To make the concept of “credits” teachable, challenging, yet fair and reasonable, “Fresh Starts” provides exactly what the name implies: four independent, 10-week marking periods in which credits are earned in all academic and special area classes. By shortening the time frame for success, “Fresh Starts” establishes a sense of urgency lost over a 40 week, 10-month wait while allowing multiple chances for academic reset.
“Fresh Starts” also eliminates the “minimum 50” policies used to counteract an unforgiving grading system that disadvantages many marginal students. Students easily and eagerly monitor their academic success, counting credits earned as the year progresses. We instituted a flexible and fair “credit cushion,” credit recovery opportunities to those who fall within the 59 to the 64-grade range, and maintained “principal discretion,” accounting for any extenuating, individual circumstances.
Here are the problems with the usual schedule.
- Constrains curricula and course options
- Mathematically confusing and unforgiving
- Promotes overuse of repetition and busywork
- Compels administrators to require the automatic “minimum 50.”
- along with over-weighted summer school and/or “credit recovery” programs
- Provides vague and imprecise learning goals for students
- Too long + Too limited = Boredom + Disinterest
- Too difficult to self-monitor with inconclusive and confusing feedback
- No chance for students to re-set and self-correct in a meaningful way
- Produces complacency and a false sense of “time security” (no sense of urgency)
- The 10-month duration is incompatible with the intensity of high-quality instruction
- Teacher-student familiarity ensures the devolution of classroom dynamics
- (Longer, absolute time results in shorter, beneficial time)
The Simple (and Free!) Solution
Reschedule the “too long school year” into two 20 weeks, independent semesters, each with two, 10 weeks, independent credit periods. Include a rescheduling of classes between semesters with a minimum two-week break in between.
- Having students earn independent credits at 10-week intervals would create a sense of urgency (reasonable pressure) while providing four opportunities (fresh starts) to re-set chances for success. By providing tangible feedback in earned credits, students could easily monitor their progress and self-correct before it’s too late. Teacher/counselor interventions would be simple and concrete as prescribed through credit requirements. Reasonable “credit cushions” could also be created.
- Independent 10 and 20-week courses would allow for creative curricula options in a selected topics format, especially for elective credits. Core academic courses such as math, science, history, and ELA would be broken into four specialized topics, two per semester.
- Students could easily repeat an unsuccessful 10-week credit unit by doubling up in a later credit period.
- Summer school and credit recovery qualifications could be more demanding and restricted, and more precise.
Core Academic Example: Grade 9 Biology
- Credit Period 1: Bio-diversity/Classification, Adaptations, and Natural Selection
- Credit Period 2: Cells, Reproduction, Genetics, Genetic Engineering, Selective Breeding
- Credit Period 3: Ecology, Environment, Energy Exchanges: Photosynthesis and Respiration
- Credit Period 4: Human Body Systems, Human Health, and Disease
Students earn 1.0 credits per 10 week credit period with a minimum grade of 65 required for promotion/graduation: 3.0 biology credits.
Our “Fresh Starts” program is implemented in grades 6, 7, and 8 and has nearly universal support among teachers, administrators, parents, and BOE members. It is user-friendly, involves no new teacher demands or training, requires no schedule, grading, or report card changes, retains all eligibility requirements for extra-curricular activities, and best of all, it is absolutely free!
The inherent flexibility of the “Fresh Starts” program readily enables any school district to custom build a credit system that meets their specific needs. So why not re-imagine the traditional 40-week grading system by establishing fair and readily achievable credit goals that will be sure to motivate all of your middle school students by providing multiple “Fresh Starts.”
Contact information for further details:
email@example.com (Guidance Counsellor, Rosalie Cornell)
firstname.lastname@example.org (Building Principal, Derek Reardon)
Rick Bobrick is a recently retired middle school teacher.