The longstanding effort to help students redo a year of school through at-your-own-pace computer study isn’t working, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
He has proposed canceling a software contract in the new budget and instead offering other programs to help students catch up after they fail a grade.
Currently, students who fail seventh or eighth grade use a system called Plato, in which they study on their own, in addition to attending standard classes. If they focus and study hard, they can complete their failed year by January and then race through the next year of courses in six months. That way, they can rejoin their peers in September and potentially graduate on time.
But that doesn’t happen very often, Spring said. The typical student who failed seventh grade ends up in the program for two years, going into high school at least a year behind their peers.
At the high school, students who fail ninth grade can also catch up with Plato. There, they usually must take a Regents exam to prove they’ve mastered the material.
Those results are also disappointing, Spring said. The best result among high school students last year was in global studies, where students using Plato had a 38 percent pass rate. The worst result last year was in English, where none of the students who used Plato managed to pass the exam.
But there were some successes, according to school officials. Among the middle-school students using Plato, 13 of 21 eighth-graders passed the ninth-grade math Regents exam, giving them high school credits toward graduation.
Spring said the trouble isn’t with the software.
“There are some kids who can do it,” he said.
But generally, he said, learning alone is hard for students who couldn’t pass a course when it was taught by a teacher.
“Putting them in a place where they’re going to be working in an environment that allows them a little less structure doesn’t increase the likelihood that they’ll develop those skills to be successful,” he said.
Now, administrators are creating new programs for those students. Schenectady High School Principal Diane Wilkinson wants to find a way for her repeat-freshmen to still finish ninth grade in a half-year, and then race through 10th grade in the remaining six months.
“That remediation can still happen,” she said. “Great teaching can take place in that timing.”
Next year, there may be more emphasis placed on the fundamentals course. In that, teachers analyze exactly what students got wrong on their Regents exams and focus on those areas. That’s an effective program, Wilkinson said.
“We’re actually looking at the data,” she said.
But she’s not sure what will be offered to the seventh and eighth graders.
“That’s a model we’re still investigating,” she admitted.
Spring said that program might need two options: one for highly-motivated students who failed because they “made a bad decision” — like skipping school regularly — and the other for students who have done poorly for years but were passed through to middle school, where their failures finally counted.
Those students need to be taught that they are intelligent, capable people.
“Smart is not something you are, it’s something you get,” Spring said. “We need to get them to re-invest.”
He said students would also be able to choose a program in which they could finish middle school in one year. At the high school, though, he wants to develop a new program to intervene as soon as a student fails one quarter, rather than waiting until the end of the year.
“Can we recover second quarter before the end of third quarter?” he asked. “There’s a better chance of passing the year and the exam.”
But it’s a scheduling nightmare. Spring said he could add a remedial class to the student’s schedule — but generally only by removing other classes, like gym. He doesn’t want to do that.
“We would supplant something else in really extreme cases,” he said.
But for most students, he’s envisioning an afterschool program. Of course, that would cost money. And therein lies the problem: He doesn’t have any extra money.
He started analyzing the results of the Plato program while he was looking for places to save money, and he cut the $171,500 program out of his proposed budget. He didn’t add money for a new, afterschool program, though.
“That’s what we’re problem-solving right now,” he said.