Washington News

The Tacoma News Tribune
July 27, 2004

Lazy days of summer? Hardly


By: DEBBY ABE; The News Tribune

Nearly half of Tacoma ninth-graders flunk at least one class during their freshman year of high school.

Jamare Harris is determined he won't be one of them - and so is the Tacoma School District.

Harris is among 200 incoming ninth-graders attending Tacoma's new high school transition program at Baker Middle School this summer.

Instead of sleeping until noon or zoning out on video games at home, teens spend their mornings studying math and language arts during the six-week High School Readiness Summer Camp.

"It's pretty cool. I get a .5 semester credit" for completing the program, said Harris, who will attend Foss High School this fall.

"I thought this would be a great opportunity for me."

Tacoma is among several South Sound school districts offering summer programs for students who need the most help negotiating the tumultuous transition from middle to high school.

Educators say many freshmen struggle to adjust to the larger, fast-paced world of high school, where students must take more responsibility for their education and rely less on teachers.

Adjustment troubles are reflected in high failure rates for freshmen nationwide, several educators said.

Last fall semester in Tacoma, 46 percent of ninth-graders failed at least one class, according to a recent district analysis. When overall grades are tallied, 22 percent of ninth-graders earned a GPA of less than 1.0 - below a D average. In contrast, only 2 percent of Tacoma sixth-graders and 9 percent of 10th-graders had such low grades.

Tacoma 's transition program is among several steps the district is taking to reduce the failure rate and help prepare students for a new statewide graduation requirement, said Tacoma deputy superintendent Ethelda Burke. The class of 2008 - this fall's freshmen - will be the first required to pass the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning to graduate.

"If they start their high school career knowing how to study, having a better handle on reading skills, knowing how to apply the district math program, they can't do anything but perform better on the WASL test," said Burke, one of the transition program's creators.

Several other districts also offer summer transition programs for students who need extra academic or social assistance:

• Peninsula School District has offered transition classes stressing time management, organization and study skills for incoming freshmen for several years.

This week, it also debuted a three-week program for up to 20 students who've finished eighth grade at Key Peninsula Middle School, said the district's Carol McLaughlin.

Instructors will teach career awareness, study skills, academics and confidence-building activities to help students identify their strengths. In one self-esteem exercise, a Gene Juarez stylist will show the girls how to apply makeup and fix their hair. Funded with a Pierce County grant, the program will attempt to help students see the link between their studies and career plans.

• Clover Park and Lakes high schools both have transition programs. At Clover Park High's four-week Ninth Grade Warrior Academy, instructors prepare 45 students academically and socially to be part of the school and community.

Teens study reading, math, social studies and English in the morning and choose from videography, art and literature, or drama and debate in the afternoon. Once a week, they paint a needy resident's house, restore a creek or perform another community service.

"We feel we make a connection with these kids," assistant principal Randy Wiseman said of the program, offered in various forms since 2001. "I think we lose fewer kids ... than we would have had they not had this experience."

• Franklin Pierce School District's five-week program concentrates strictly on reading, writing and math.

Forty to 50 eighth-graders who haven't met the district's promotion policy must earn at least a C in the summer classes to enter high school this fall. The district tried other transition programs in the early 1990s - classes during the school year focusing more on raising self-esteem and acquainting teens with high school expectations - but found they didn't work.

"You can make kids feel as good as they want about themselves and if they come to a point where they have to perform and they know they can't, it won't last very long," said assistant superintendent Frank Hewins. "These kids need more academics more than anything."

In Tacoma's program, the 3 1/2-hour day is divided between math and language arts. Most students are taught by teachers from the same high school they'll attend and are paired with older student mentors.

Funded through state Initiative 728 dollars, the $200,000 program is free for students, who also receive a public bus pass to reach the Baker site.

The program features a new curriculum designed to teach high school students how to read at grade level.

Traditionally, high school classes assume that students know how to read at the appropriate level, said Carolyn Treleven, a district curriculum and instruction director. Yet while most freshmen have "decoding skills" to correctly pronounce words, many don't understand what they're reading.

"Read 180" combines small and large group instruction and computerized lessons to hone reading skills at students' level. This fall, Tacoma high schools will use the curriculum for struggling readers.

The program's book topics - from NASCAR to "Ripley's Believe It or Not" - interest teens. One computerized lesson features video of the 1980 Olympics U.S. hockey team, interspersed with text about the team and vocabulary and comprehension exercises.

"The fact it's multimedia really grabs their attention," said Lincoln High School teacher Jennifer Burrough.

Student Aashia Cavil said she used to find herself losing interest and falling asleep while reading. But reading has become easier this summer.

"Our teacher, Mr. Miller, does a good job of it," she said. "When we come off focus, he helps us get back on focus."

But Cavil said she's found the math class to be tougher than expected. She's hoping she'll do well next year at Stadium High School.

"I don't really want to fail," the teen said. "That would not be a pretty thing to repeat the ninth grade, when you already had an opportunity to take the classes."

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694


 The Interactive Media Division of The News Tribune

© 2004 Tacoma News, Inc.

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