By Madelynn Coldiron
It’s 7 o’clock on a beautiful Saturday morning in late April – perfect conditions for a middle school-age child to sleep in late before frittering away the rest of the day.
On this Saturday morning, though, a dozen or so North Marshall (County) Middle School students drag in to their school for a two-hour session that will give them individual attention with make-up work, tutoring or whatever it takes to keep them from failing a class. School policy calls for students who fail a core class to be retained, and Saturday school is one of a battery of safety nets to prevent that from happening.
PHOTO: Teacher Jeff Jones, one of the “regulars” who volunteer for Saturday sessions, helps a student understand the phases of the moon as she works through a lesson online.
“It’s very difficult to help a middle school student understand long term – if I don’t do my homework today, that’s going to affect me next week, next month – especially with kids who don’t get a lot of support at home,” Principal Aimee Lepisto said.
The early morning Saturday school is effective at getting students to buckle down, Lepisto said, “because nobody likes to give up a Saturday morning.”
The very early hour was chosen purposely for maximum impact. “If it was 11 to 1 and we served a snack it wouldn’t have much effect,” she said.
“I think it’s been a real good program,” said Marshall County school board member Donna Perry, who once was principal at that school before her retirement.
The Saturday school began mid-year last year after lunchtime and after-school sessions weren’t having the desired effect. About 10 of the school’s 32 teachers responded when Lepisto asked for volunteers to rotate Saturday mornings and work with students. Though bus transportation was provided last year, this year parents are bringing their children and some teachers also provide rides.
While that has resulted in a small drop-off in participation, parents are generally supportive, Lepisto said, because they don’t want their child to be retained. Even so, there are usually two or three no-shows.
Four teachers, including the principal and assistant principal, usually staff each session.
“You get a lot more one-on-one with the students, to explain, go over something in great detail, or something they don’t understand,” said Jeff Jones, a social studies teacher who works at Saturday school.
Though the students are a little tired when they come in, “after a while, they get going,” he said. “We try to make it fun, too. They’re going to go by our attitude, so we try to lighten it a little bit and get them excited about what they’re doing.”
Most students are in Saturday school because they’re in danger of failing a class or to make up work, but some students, like D.J., volunteer to attend, because they want to do better.
“I come to get things done that I don’t have enough time to do in class,” D.J., a sixth-grader, said. “It’s helped me a very lot – doing my work, concentrating and bringing my grades up.”
Harold, a seventh-grader, said he’d rather be sleeping in or fishing than going to Saturday school, but the teachers, he said, “are awesome.”
On Fridays after administrators review weekly grade reports, the identified students are called in to be given the Saturday school news. Parents also are contacted. The school makes allowances for weekend family situations, however.
The list of students who need to be in Saturday school is sent to their teachers, who then recommend material they should cover through computer programs that are tied to core content. Students spend their Saturday mornings at school until they raise their grade or grades above F level.
Lepisto said teacher buy-in and willingness to put in extra work has helped make the program successful. “It completely works because the staff supports it,” she said.
Other safety nets
The school has a standard after-school program that also relies on volunteer teachers. About 40 kids attend these sessions, for which transportation is provided.
North Marshall Middle’s discipline system also indirectly supports academics. It’s based on a 100-point scale, with points deducted for various types of misbehavior ranging from the most serious, bullying, to missing assignments and disrespect. The system resets after each nine-week grading period to give students a clean slate so they don’t become discouraged.
Students whose points drop below 90 or who miss assignments are assigned to “silent lunch,” a table outside the cafeteria where they eat lunch and finish the work they didn’t do. When points fall below 70, students are placed in in-school suspension with a teacher for a number of days. “This takes away the social aspects of school,” Lepisto said.
Students may also earn back points for most offenses at a teacher’s discretion.
About half the student body is rewarded with a year-end trip to Holiday World for maintaining all their points throughout the year.
The system also is easy to use and track, thanks to a special computer program designed by the district’s technology staff. It even generates an automatic email to parents for each offense.