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 Article of Interest - Children At-Risk

Kids learn to thrive: Program gives students the structure and skills they need to succeed
by Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press, January 23, 2003
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It's an 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 last January.

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 grade.

"We don't want any child to slip through the cracks," Coratti said.

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 program.

"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 school.

"Kids who aren't ready for that . . . flounder," MacGregor said.

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," Brittany said.

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, he said.

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 his schoolwork.

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 reports.

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

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