By Jennifer Wohlleb
Despite the name Operation Zero, the program at Breckinridge County High School is all about second chances. It takes students who are failing two or more classes, usually through missed assignments, and works with them to get caught up.
“I’m sure all schools have problems with apathy or students not turning in assignments, and you really hate for the only reason for a child to fail a class is because they didn’t turn in their homework,” said Principal Nick Carter.
Students assigned to Operation Zero meet in the commons area every morning during the school’s 25-minute guided study period, Tiger Time, which starts each school day. During that time, an assistant principal, the curriculum specialist and even student tutors from the National Honor Society, work with the students.
PHOTO: Students, administrators and teachers gather in the commons area of Breckinridge County High School during Operation Zero, which gives students a second chance to complete work and remove failing grades from their classes. Photo provided by Breckinridge County High School
Assistant Principal Adam Cox, whom Carter credits as being the driving force behind Operation Zero, said the program began in 2010-11 school year, a year after the start of Tiger Time.
“Tiger Time was a great addition to our school and we started asking how we could even better utilize it,” he said. “One of the things I worked with a lot of the time was students failing classes, and how could I eliminate the number of students failing? We saw Tiger Time and decided that maybe we would try pulling a few students down. During the first semester, we were pulling down maybe 10-15 students, a very small group, of students who were failing three or four classes.”
He said they sat down with students, identified missing work and worked with them to complete it.
“Then it evolved the next semester to where we were pulling every student that had three Fs and were working with them,” Cox said. “Our curriculum specialist was sitting out there with us with the students, working with them, getting them back on task, reminding them to bring in work. And when year one was over, we saw a considerable dent in the number of Ds and Fs.”
The numbers have continued to fall, so much that Operation Zero had to lower its requirements to students failing two or more classes because there were no longer many students failing three or more. (See chart)
Student buy in
It didn’t take long for students to get with the program.
“We started bringing our laptops out there (to the commons area) and students would come up to us and ask, ‘What am I missing,’” Cox said. “They were starting to take some ownership. They knew what classes they were failing.”
This school year, the third for Operation Zero, administrators added student tutors from the National Honor Society.
“The first couple of weeks we had to do the assignment, ‘You work with this student, you work with that student ...,” Cox said. “Today, we probably don’t even have to be out there; the kids know who to work with, they know the ones who are struggling. The ones who are usually quiet or apathetic, they’re asking for a particular student because they know how to do science or whatever. They’re the ones asking for the NHS kids to come and help them. It really has been a beautiful thing for us to kind of sit back and watch.”
Carter said this program is helping change the school culture.
“Sometimes there is a bit of a barrier, a divide, between those two groups of students, but a lot of times those barriers are misconceived,” he said. “A lot of times those NHS students have some of the same challenges. There’s nothing saying they don’t come from rough or tough backgrounds. I think that Operation Zero has opened up the communication between those students and they’ve learned a lot about each other and it’s created tolerance and understanding of what each other is going through.”
Carter said the staff has embraced the program, as well.
“We’re talking to kids daily about their missing work,” he said. “You and I could be walking through the halls right now and hear our other assistant principal, Mike Harned, stop a student and say, ‘Hey, your English grade fell down to 65. I looked and you’re missing two assignments.
What’s going on? Do you think you can get those from your teacher and work on them over spring break?’ That’s amazing to walk around and hear an adult in a building of almost 900 kids have that kind of one-on-one conversation with a kid.”
“And I bet that conversation goes on 20 times a day,” Cox added.
Once students get their failing grade down to one, they are usually released from Operation Zero, unless the failing grade is in a core subject like math, English, social studies or science.
“We might say, in English you’re missing two assignments, why don’t you get those done and then you can go.’ And they’re perfectly fine with that,” Cox said. “We probably release two or three kids a day on average.”
Second chances vs. responsibility
Carter said he understands that some people may question the lesson students are being taught through Operation Zero.
“I think sometimes we adults get caught up in, ‘We can’t give high schoolers second chances because we’re not teaching them responsibility,’” he said. “But really, I challenge people with that thinking to consider this: as adults, do we not get second chances? If I forget to pay my cable bill, I don’t lose my cable forever. It might get shut off, but I pay it, maybe with a late fee, but it gets turned back on.
“But I think there is a greater good we’re teaching, which is, just because you forget to do it, doesn’t mean you give up and don’t do it; you still have to do it … we have to meet our obligations, even if we’re late doing it.”
And teachers can and do penalize students for turning in work late, Carter said, though students do still earn credit.
They also are learning not to accept failure.
“Sometimes it’s easier for a student to choose to fail than to fail,” Cox said. “They would rather choose to fail by not turning assignments in than to try and make a 50 percent. We’re giving them the opportunity to say, ‘It’s OK that you don’t know it, that’s why we’re here to help you understand it.’
“They are going into the classroom now, and some of them are excelling just by trying. They understand that you are going to make a bad grade every now and then, and a 60 is a lot better than a zero, and to not get discouraged by making that 60 because sometimes you’re going to make an 80 and an 85 or a 90. They do that and they get confidence.”