The game of Life introduced Kristi Ford to her new seventh-grade charges at Rim Country Middle School.
She gathered them in the cafeteria and told them to pretend they had just graduated high school. Did they want to attend college, vocational school or enter the work force?
After those choices, students proceeded to buy houses, cars and decide if they wanted families. They signed up for cell phones and the Internet, paid for food and gas.
At the next table, students were presented with bills reflecting the choices they made.
At the end, Ford confronted students with the income they would likely make based on what level of education they attained compared to the bills they accumulated along the way.
“Many of the students realized the educational choices they made did not match up to the lifestyle” they chose, Ford told the school board recently.
“It was kind of an eye-opening experience.”
Ford started working at the middle school as an academic counselor in January, but she technically works for Eastern Arizona College.
The college applied for and received $4.1 million in federal funds for the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP grant. Payson will receive $180,000 over six years. Eight districts in EAC’s coverage area will receive part of the grant.
Grant money helps pay Ford to work as an academic counselor to the current class of seventh-graders as they progress through high school.
When the seventh-graders move to eighth-grade, so will she. When the seventh-graders enter high school, she will follow to help those students maintain good grades and enter college.
According to the Arizona Department of Education, 4.2 percent of students in grades seven through 12 dropped out of school in the Payson Unified School District in 2008, compared the state average of 3.6 percent. Payson’s dropout rate, however, is lower than Gila County’s 5 percent rate.
According to high school guidance counselor Don Heizer, 27 percent of Payson High School students attend four-year colleges, and 45 percent choose two-year colleges or vocational school.
Ford, through the GEAR UP grant, will work to decrease the number of dropouts and increase the number of students attending college.
She is beginning her large and somewhat abstract task by giving each of her approximately 180 to 200 seventh-graders an academic interview, an occasion that will occur annually.
By talking with students, Ford can discover if they don’t know their multiplication tables or if they’re struggling to read. She can then help devise ways to solve the problem.
Payson schools do have guidance counselors. Ford said it’s not that the middle school’s guidance counselor doesn’t want to help kids with their academic problems; he just doesn’t have time.
“The world — it’s so full of commotion,” Ford said. Middle school students have pressing social and emotional needs that guidance counselors must help them with, which leaves little time for academic intervention.
Ford has definite ideas of why so many kids are falling behind, and is seemingly passionate — and ambitious — about catching them up.
First, she says it’s important to not just diagnose problems, but also find solutions.
Developing Individual Education Plans, called IEPs, for every student is another possibility. The plans have traditionally been reserved for special education students, and so there’s a stigma attached, Ford said. But the plans could be instrumental in strengthening a child’s particular weaknesses.
“The most important thing we can do is find ways to differentiate instruction,” Ford said. Students learn differently. Some by writing, some by listening and many by actually doing.
The problem for teachers, Ford said, is that the long list of state standards they must cover by the year’s end allows no time for backtracking. Those standards have rendered teaching increasingly rigid.
“This is something I think the public does not understand,” she said.
Even if teachers did backtrack, different topics confuse different children. Solutions like the Academic Center for Enrichment — the ACE lab, which the Roundup recently featured — allow individualized, computer-based instruction.
Ford plans to capitalize on already available resources like the ACE lab to help individualize instruction and help students achieve.
“A child sitting in front of a computer is not the be-all-end-all, but it does offer a child a different option,” she said.
In a district with a higher than state average dropout rate, in a state that has higher than average national dropout rates, a counselor like Ford could change those numbers dramatically.
“I’m hoping I’ll get good enough at this so that I can help out with other grades,” said Ford. She has also said that the models of intervention she develops with this class will be easily transferable to other students.
“Instead of passing a kid off and saying, ‘He can’t do it,’ we need to say, ‘How can he do it,’” Ford said.
Because Ford is in the unique position of following children through high school, she will be able to collect longitudinal data. That data can be analyzed to reveal problems or areas needing improvement. Because Ford is an employee of the college and not the district, she can talk freely without fear of offending her employer.
And perhaps through academic intervention, Ford can help her students win the game of Life.