In many cases, students' growth more than doubled the expected growth targets. In eighth grade, for example, more than one-third of students doubled their expected growth targets in every subject.

In many cases, students' growth more than doubled the expected growth targets. In eighth grade, for example, more than one-third of students doubled their expected growth targets in every subject.

The leap from elementary school to middle school can be daunting, particularly for students who struggle academically. Each day, students working below grade level not only toil to keep up with their classmates, but to retain their confidence. Every reading passage or math problem they don’t understand creates frustration and anxiety, and chips away at their resolve to stay in school.

Research shows that ninth grade is a bottleneck for many students who find their academic skills insufficient for high school work. One reason the ninth grade finishes off so many students is that many of them have already been struggling and disengaging for three years or more before entering high school (Balfanz and Letgers 2006).

As such, the challenges facing middle school educators are significant. How do we fill in learning gaps while maintaining a consistent focus on grade level standards? How do we engage struggling learners who tune out during remedial instruction? How do we help students journey through middle school with their self-confidence intact?

As principal of Bell Street Middle School in the Laurens County School District in Clinton, S.C., I posed these questions to our school leadership team. We researched answers to these questions and discovered they could be found in individualization, motivation, and accountability. To help close the achievement gap, we adjusted students’ schedules to allow for a double-dose of instruction in English/language arts and mathematics, and we tailored learning to address each student’s needs. We created an incentive program to recognize students for their hard work. We also provided tools to help students become more accountable for their behavior.

Since taking a more personalized, positive and, proactive approach, Bell Street Middle School has helped struggling learners achieve gains on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, with many students more than doubling expected growth targets. We have decreased failure and retention rates. We have also reduced discipline incidents and suspensions. Through these efforts, we have improved students’ self-confidence and their desire to succeed.

Recognizing what doesn’t work

Bell Street Middle School enrolls approximately 680 students in grades six through eight. Seventy percent of students receive free and reduced lunch. At the beginning of 2007, we were struggling with state test scores. While many students were scoring at the Below Basic level, we knew the level of instruction in the classroom could not drop because we needed to stay focused on grade-level standards. There was a need for remediation on a regular basis.

To help our students, we initiated a homework tutoring program after school with little success. There were a few reasons this approach did not work. First, while the program allowed teachers to work with students on specific skills, it focused primarily on grade-level curriculum rather than basic skills students may have missed. Second, the after-school program was offered at the same time as many other extracurricular activities. Third, at the end of the day, students were not motivated to stay and do more of the same type of work.

Thinking technology could help, we tried a couple different software programs but found they were too limited. We also implemented software that was supposed to differentiate instruction using students’ MAP scores. This prescriptive instruction, however, was not automatic and the process proved to be too time consuming for teachers.

Thinking more instruction would help, we assigned students to a 45-minute class for remedial math or reading. This was in addition to students’ regular 90-minute math or reading block. While the class sizes were small, the instruction was mainly teacher-led and resources were limited to textbooks and other books. Although teachers did their best, students were tuning out. After 90 minutes of instruction in their regular block, the last thing students wanted was another 45 minutes delivered in the same manner.

Individualizing instruction

In 2007, I had an opportunity to review a software program our school district was considering to address our students’ academic needs. Our leadership team decided that the program fit our needs and developed a plan for implementation. That fall, Bell Street Middle School implemented a software program called Classworks, which includes 17,000 instructional activities drawn from 265 software titles, and it allows for individualization of instruction.