For years, schools have grappled with how to help the most struggling pupils catch up to their classmates.
In many cases, holding them back to repeat a grade hasn’t worked. Neither has social promotion — allowing children to move to the next grade with their classmates, where they may fall further behind.
So what would it take to get a pupil the needed help without the stigma of repeating a grade? Two schools in the Pattonville School District are shaking up schedules and class structures in an effort to find out.
It’s an experiment that could lay the groundwork for other schools to follow suit.
Already, the concept has transformed the typical school day for hundreds of Pattonville pupils.
At one school, traditional elementary classrooms have been swept away. Rather than sitting in front of one teacher with the same classmates, pupils move from group to group based on their skill levels in reading and math.
That kind of customized instruction played out on a recent day at Holman Middle School.
Pupils filtered out of classrooms and onto buses to go home or to after-school sports and clubs. But the school day wasn’t over for some sixth-graders, who were heading to one more class. Teacher Kevin Combs wanted to see how much his pupils had grasped from his English lesson earlier that day.
About 30 pupils at Holman are part of a new extended school day twice a week. By year’s end, the pupils — some two or three grade levels below their peers in English and math — will have absorbed an additional 72 hours of teaching. The goal is to be ready for high school when they leave Holman.
“If we’re going to grow, we need the time,” Combs said.
Across the country, some districts and schools are embracing the concept, called proficiency-based learning. It can get pupils the help they need, when they need it.
“If we want all students to be college and career ready, we’ve got to do something different,” said Margie Vandeven, deputy commissioner in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “It just makes sense.”
But barriers exist to schools offering such flexibility. One of the biggest hurdles is tradition. Typical school schedules work against it. And school leaders worry about covering grade-level materials in time to take state tests.
Drummond Elementary is a bustling place.
For the second year, Drummond pupils in first through fifth grades are on the move every 40 minutes, except for lunch.
With some creative scheduling, administrators have been able to group pupils in each grade with others at the same level in reading and math. Some groups work above their grade level, allowing children to excel at an accelerated pace.
Other groups are a little below grade level, while some are more than two years behind.
“Typically, the kids that leave a classroom are the ones that struggle,” said Principal Jason Van Beers. “We’ve changed it so there isn’t that stigma. Every kid moves throughout the day.”
In Kristen Webber’s room, a small group of fourth-graders take turns with a timed reading test. They have one minute to read as far as they can on a page. Using a computer program, Webber can highlight and track the words missed each week.
“One day Russ had a wonderful idea,” a girl starts reading. “He found a large bucket. He filled it with warm water and added a … g-g-generous amount of dish soap,” she said, pausing to sound out the word.
The week before, she had five errors, and today just three. If children feel comfortable when they make mistakes, they can learn from them instead of feeling embarrassed, Webber said.
In the past, educators were largely limited to either holding a child back a grade, or moving them along. Research shows neither option reliably improves long-term achievement for struggling pupils.
Several studies have shown that pupils who are held back in middle school are more likely to drop out of high school. Others say the trauma of repeating a grade outlasts any improved performance.
Education leaders, including Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, have said that’s why schools need to think differently about how to help kids succeed.
Thinking creatively about how to help children catch up also can mean thinking differently about when they should take state standardized exams.
Critics of rigid state testing schedules argue that it makes more sense to focus on closing the learning gaps, even if that means delaying testing.
That’s part of the idea behind an “Algebra for All” program that Pattonville adopted 15 years ago.
Under the program, the type of algebra a student takes depends on his or her needs and ability. Some take it as early as seventh grade, while others complete a two-year course in high school and take a state-mandated end-of-course exam accordingly.
At Drummond Elementary, administrators decided to have 28 third-graders delay taking the Missouri state standardized exam last spring.
Those pupils received intense help this summer, and even though they are fourth-graders, they are still getting ready for the third-grade exam. Tim Pecoraro, an assistant superintendent in Pattonville, said the approach makes more sense than giving them a test they aren’t ready for.
But changing testing schedules can be controversial. Schools and districts in Missouri are rated by how many pupils pass exams within a spring testing window.
Pattonville officials say simply boosting test scores isn’t their aim. And they say the state education department has given the district permission to pilot the idea.
“It’s not about trying to game the system … delaying kids to pump up our test scores,” Pecoraro said. “You do it to help kids.”
Annissa Isbell said her son Antoine, who is a sixth-grader on the extended day team at Holman Middle, has always learned differently. She remembers practicing counting with him when he was younger by laying out Cheerios cereal.
“You have to show him, and then he’s going to need you to show him again,” she said.
By fourth grade, he was far enough behind that he was held back and did not want to go to school.
He no longer gets upset and shuts down about school.
“He’s raising his hand, asking questions,” Isbell said. “He just seems to shine.”
His grade in English has gone from a D to a B. He’s also showing improvement in math.
This year, Pattonville scored among the top school districts in the St. Louis area on its annual performance report with 96.8 percent — even as its poverty rate is three times that of others such as Kirkwood and Rockwood.
Many of Pattonville’s high marks from the state are based on the district’s improvement. Overall, students are slightly above Missouri’s state averages in math and English language arts scores, with 57 percent passing.
But the district tops others in St. Louis County for black student achievement on end-of-course-exams in Algebra I, biology, English II and government.
High standards and believing that every child is capable have been key, said Superintendent Mike Fulton. He has been at the helm of the district as its demographics have changed. About 45 percent of students are minorities and nearly 50 percent of its total student population now qualifies for free and reduced-price lunches, a marker of poverty.
Pattonville’s experiment with proficiency-based learning has the attention of the state, which previously convened a task force to study the concept. Fulton co-chaired that committee.
He and other Pattonville leaders say they the idea is worth the trouble.
“It definitely is not how any of us went to school,” Pecoraro said. “It takes more of out-of-the-box, creative thinking.”