Kids learn to
thrive: Program gives students the structure and skills they
need to succeed
by Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press, January 23, 2003
For more articles visit
innocuous poster that urges students to "Learn like a champion
today," but every morning many of Brad Farquhar's 20 students
touch it like it's magic.
The seventh-graders tap the poster as they leave Farquhar's
one-hour class, their first of the day.
It's "a reminder to kind of attack the day, do your best,"
says Farquhar, a teacher at White Lake Middle School in the
Huron Valley Schools district.
That's what his students -- who as sixth-graders earned a
collective 1.4 grade-point average -- are doing this year, the
first the district has run a middle school intervention
program called Skills for Success.
The program takes struggling students and assigns them to one
teacher, whom they see for two of their six classes. Classes
are smaller, there is more individual attention and students
have more opportunities to be connected to an adult who works
with them on academic, social and study skills.
In the first 10 weeks of this school year, the students
shined. They earned a collective 2.8 GPA, improving from a low
D average to nearly a B. Six students made the honor roll.
"I study a lot more. I pay more attention in class," said
Nikki Terry, 12, one of the honor roll students.
Farquhar said he expected grades to remain about the same for
the semester that ended Friday. Grades are still being
compiled, but the overall improvement has been quite a change
from last year, when many of the students had academic, social
or behavioral problems.
"Last year, I was getting all E's. Now, I've got B's and A's,"
said Justin Darling, 13.
Skills for Success is one of several new programs the
11,000-student district began this year to provide a safety
net for struggling students.
"Our district philosophy is to intervene early and intervene
often so that all students meet with success," said Nancy
Coratti, assistant superintendent of instruction, staff
development and strategic planning.
Coratti said the district's efforts fit in with the federal
emphasis on success for all children in the No Child Left
Behind Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law
The district also has a new high school alternative program
that was created for students with severe behavioral problems.
Next year, the district will guarantee parents their children
will be reading at grade level by the time they leave third
"We don't want any child to slip through the cracks," Coratti
The Skills for Success program actually was created in 1987
but wasn't implemented because the money wasn't available. An
estimated $190,000 for the program -- in place at the
district's four middle schools -- comes from the general fund.
Mike MacGregor, a White Lake social worker who has worked in
the district for 23 years, was on the team that wrote the
"It just made sense. You took kids who had good inherent
ability and you provided a good structure for them," he said.
MacGregor said that although some middle school students no
longer need the structure of an elementary setting, they're
still not prepared for the increased independence of middle
"Kids who aren't ready for that . . . flounder," MacGregor
Brittany Bresnahan, 13, was one of them.
She didn't care about school, and didn't care much about
getting good grades. But that changed this year. She's gone
from earning D's and E's to earning C's and some D's.
"It's pretty easy now because you get the hang of it,"
Many schools are using similar programs at the middle school
level, said Larry Thomas, director of school quality for
Oakland Schools, the county's intermediate district.
"Obviously, schools need to look at putting programs in place
that help in academic achievement," Thomas said. But the best
programs also deal with children's social and emotional needs,
At White Lake, the program is structured so the students spend
two hours a day -- an hour in the morning and an hour in the
afternoon -- with Farquhar. He teaches language arts and works
with them on study and life skills.
On a recent afternoon, he spent the early part of the hour
meeting with each student, asking about schoolwork and finding
out about homework assignments and upcoming tests. The final
hour of the school day is designed for more independent work,
and Farquhar made sure to keep the students on task.
"I know you can make better use of your time," he told one
boy, who was busy making origami shapes. Those weren't part of
Assistance from eighth-graders and high schoolers who tutor
the students allows Farquhar to spend more time one-on-one
with each child.
"He talks to us. If we're not doing good, he tries to help us
do better. He's a nice teacher," said Ricky Pluskota, 12.
Ricky considers himself an example of how programs such as
Skills for Success work. Last year, his parents often grounded
him because of frequent D's and E's. He dreaded progress
This year, he's getting mostly B's and some C's. He got an A
in language arts.
"It was, like, really weird. My parents were proud of me,"
Ricky said. "It can improve your grades and your attitude and
your self-esteem," he said of the program.
"It's really building their confidence," Farquhar said. "At
first, it was me pushing them. Now, it's snowballed. They're
taking more responsibility."
As for the grade improvements, Farquhar said he's proud, but
there's another reason to feel gratified:
"It makes me happy to see that they like coming to school
more. There's a connection there."
Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-591-5625 or