This time last year, Taressa Brownell was lost.
The Mt. Hope High School junior was failing many of her classes. She seldom went to class. And though she had always dreamed of owning her own restaurant, such a goal seemed far, far off.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I wasn’t interested (in school). I just kind of blanked it out. That’s what I do when I don’t want to deal with things.”
But things have changed.
Tuesday morning, Taressa beamed as she talked about what has happened in her life since she enrolled in Mt. Hope’s PASS (Personalized Academic Student Success) program.
The pilot program’s aim, through one-on-one sessions with PASS teacher Allison Lewis, is to give students strategies to help them conquer whatever academic or social difficulties are holding them back. For Taressa, that meant coaching help for time management, online study skills and other issues.
The program, and her regular one-on-one meetings with Ms. Lewis, have made a tremendous difference.
“I’ve actually passed two classes so far,” she said. She hopes to walk with her fellow graduates later this spring. And then?
“I’m going to CCRI to get my business degree. I want to open my own restaurant.”
Rising graduation rate
When Taressa walks three months from now, she will be a small part of a big statistical change in Bristol Warren — a steadily rising graduation rate.
Last year, Mt. Hope saw 91 percent of its students graduate, its highest rate ever, up four percentage points from the previous year.
Superintendent Dr. Mario Andrade said the rising numbers are encouraging, as graduating more students has been a clear goal of the school and district administration for years now.
At its core, improving student success comes down to giving students the skills they need to tackle their classes, and just as importantly, instilling the confidence they need to believe that they can do it, he said. Many young students lack that positive attitude and, unfortunately, the seeds of those negative thoughts are often planted long before their senior year arrives.
“Students don’t decide to drop out in their 12th year,” Dr. Andrade said. “A lot of the work starts in the ninth grade. We’re looking at options to help them” at that critical time early in their high school careers.
Many students at risk for having poor grades or other academic issues are identified as eighth graders, before they even get to the high school. Once there, school administrators try to give them extra attention, or just words of encouragement, to put them on the right track early.
“It could be just a quick conversation all the way to the other end of the spectrum, where we’ll look at altering the students’ day,” Dr. Andrade said. “They might be assigned to extended day programs for extra credits. We’ll look at ’Virtual High School,’ where they can learn at home for additional credits,” he said.
In many cases, young students who fall behind become so overwhelmed that they give up, thinking they’ll never be able to do what it takes to graduate. Giving them encouragement, both through informal talks and other more formal programs can pay huge dividends, Dr. Andrade said.
“Once they see that they can do this, it gives the kids extra hope,” he said. “That’s what they need.”
Hope at Mt. Hope
That’s why Ms. Lewis is excited to oversee the PASS program, which is in its first year.
The phys-ed instructor meets with about 34 students on an individual basis, for 15 minutes at a time. Her PASS meetings are held over two periods every day, and she keeps in constant contact with her students through hallway talks, e-mail and scheduled sessions.
She believes PASS has had early success because it’s not a regimented program, but an open-ended student-teacher relationship that allows her to set individual goals with students.
Each learns differently, and each has different needs — the key is to identify and focus on them.
“For students who are tardy, because they wander the halls and don’t have the motivation to go to class, maybe the goal for the week is getting to class on time. For students who miss class, maybe it’s attending school for three out of five days. Others might just need” simple alarms and prompts to tell them when to start their homework, and keep at it.
“It sounds so simple, but it’s what they need, “ Ms. Lewis said. “The whole point is to start the goal small, but for these kids starting small is the world to them.”
Mt. Hope Principal Dr. Deb DiBiase is impressed with the early impact Ms. Lewis has had on her students.
“She does amazing things with these kids,” she said. “She’s teaching responsibility, trying to get students to take things into their own hands.”
Personal responsibility is a key theme in PASS, and it has paid huge dividends for two other enrolled students, 11th graders Dylan Madison and Diana Medeiros.
Prior to enrolling in PASS and working on his organization skills, Dylan said, “I was all over the place, missing assignments for months, missing tests.”
Now, Dylan said his dreams of attending college and becoming a police officer have never seemed more attainable. His plan after high school is to study law enforcement at CCRI.
“I’m more on a steady path,” he said. “Now I’m more motivated.”
So is Diana. The senior works long hours at the Franklin Court assisted living facility in Bristol. Work and other commitments made it difficult for her to concentrate on her studies. She and Ms. Lewis set up cell phone alarms and other cues that remind her when to get to her schoolwork, and the results have paid off.
“It does help,” said Diana, who hopes to become a paralegal. And now that she is catching up with her classes, she has a more positive outlook on school.
“I’ve never actually cared before. This year, I care.”
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