A software program helped ninth graders stay on track.

A software program helped ninth graders stay on track.

On the road to graduation, ninth grade is the place where many students lose their way. To help all students cross the finish line with a diploma in hand, it is vital that we make sure incoming freshmen get off to a successful start in high school.

After graduating from Vero Beach High School and beginning my teaching career there, I worked in a neighboring county for 10 years before returning to my alma mater as principal in 2009. Although the suburban school was high performing, I noticed a growing achievement gap:  While students were proficient as eighth graders, their achievement levels dropped as they progressed through high school.

We knew we couldn’t wait for results from district benchmarks or quarterly assessments to help pinpoint the problems. That first semester we implemented an online educational program that is built directly from state standards and, with real-time reporting, gives teachers the ability to monitor student mastery daily and quickly identify learning gaps as they relate to the state standards. Called Study Island, the program combines self-paced instruction with games and rewards to reinforce student accomplishments as they master grade-level content and help students take control of their learning.

Monitoring student progress

Nearly all ninth graders work on the software in math, reading, writing, and science. In addition, targeted tenth graders work on the program to address achievement gaps. With the reporting data, teachers are able to differentiate instruction and provide targeted interventions to narrow achievement gaps in the classroom and help students prepare for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Teachers also use the data to affirm students’ successes, which boosts their confidence.

To ensure all students make the most of their high school education, I also regularly monitor student progress and disaggregate data by student subgroups. Plus, I created a subgroup for student athletes to track their mastery of state standards and evaluate their performance as a whole.

On our campus of 2,700 students, we have nearly 700 athletes. Almost all the athletes who used Study Island improved their performance on our benchmark exams. The football players, who had the lowest averages in class and the lowest success rate on our exams, made substantial increases. We also saw significant gains among other athletes, including members of our baseball, tennis, and swim teams.

To strengthen the school-to-home connection, we also use the online program’s parent notification system to automatically eMail reports to parents about their child’s performance. With the reports, parents can chart their child’s progress and see how their child is likely to perform on the FCAT.

Strengthening writing skills

To help students stay on track throughout high school, I also believe it is critical to focus on writing as early as possible. If students are not involved in writing every day, they do not perform as well on their state tests.

So, in addition to working on math, reading, and science in the online educational program, students and teachers also use a Writing Assignment module, which provides a paperless way to develop writing skills across the curriculum. Using this module, teachers choose from grade-specific writing prompts or create their own writing assignments for students. Students use online graphic organizers to plan their written responses, and create and submit their compositions online. Teachers then electronically send grades and comments back to students, or ask for revisions.

We also use a separate, paper-based program for FCAT practice writing tests. When students complete the writing assessments, we send their papers off to a company that hand-scores the essays and sends us feedback. That one writing program, however, costs us as much as our entire Study Island program, which provides so much more.

Preparing for exams

In addition to FCAT preparation, we use the online program to help students prepare for Advanced Placement (AP), SAT, and ACT exams. It saves time by showing students which strands they are weak in, so they can focus on the skills they need to pass the exam with flying colors. With one or two clicks, students can find the content they need to build their skills. They think it’s a “short-cut” because they no longer have to go out and find materials, and then jump from chapter to chapter or book to book to fill in their gaps. They also like that they can measure their progress as they go.

We have found that the exam preparation, which takes place during the regular school day, is making a difference. In 2009-10, our school had eight National Merit Scholarship finalists, which doubled the school record. Ninety-nine percent of our AP students took an AP test, compared to only 75 percent the year before. Our school also saved more than $54,000 in printed test-prep books and materials by using the online program.

Learning outside the school day

To accelerate learning, we encourage students to use the online program outside the school day as well. After school, it is offered as part of a program for students scoring below the proficient level on the FCAT. Outside school, students can access it using their own computers or computers in local media centers.

Students average roughly 3,000 questions per week outside of school. They like having the ability to use the program on their own time because they believe it helps them in the classroom. Plus, when students initiate a program on their own, we know they are interested and engaged.

Enhancing audio in classrooms

Another technology we use to more deeply engage students is an audio enhancer. We recently retrofitted all our classrooms with Audio Enhancement classroom systems to improve students’ ability to hear the teacher in the classroom. The system includes a teardrop microphone for the teacher, a hand-held microphone for students, four speakers evenly distributed across the ceiling, an amplifier, and an infrared sensor that provides 360-degree coverage so the teacher can facilitate instruction from anywhere in the room.

Improving the sound in our classrooms has helped students better focus on learning, since they no longer have to waste energy struggling to hear the teacher or filling in gaps of missing information.

Achieving gains

From 2009 to 2010, Vero Beach High School saw measurable gains in the percentage of students achieving proficiency on the FCAT, and our ninth graders demonstrated significant increases over last year’s ninth graders.

In reading, the percentage of ninth graders scoring at the proficient level or above on the FCAT rose from 53 to 58 percent. Tenth grade students also improved their performance in reading, and dramatically increased their FCAT achievement levels in writing, which is measured with a point system from 1 to 6, with 6 being the highest score. From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of tenth graders scoring 4.0 or above in Persuasive Writing jumped from 58 to 76 percent.

In 2010, our school was also named again to Newsweek magazine’s annual list of the nation’s best high schools.

Best of all, students know our programs are making a difference in their performance and they feel like they are on the right track–the track to graduation.

Eric Seymour is principal of Vero Beach High School, Vero Beach, Fla.