Three years ago, Payson High School’s fine arts teacher George Conley began informally meeting with students who were failing classes.
He would talk with them to figure out why they were having so much trouble.
“It drives me crazy when kids fail,” said Conley.
This year, the school formalized Conley’s caring, non-punitive approach and began academic conferences for freshmen who were failing courses.
Consequently, the number of freshmen failing classes fell by 40 percent by the end of the fall semester.
Sometimes, the problem is attendance — kids who miss too much school tend to perform more poorly in school. Other times, kids complete their homework, but then fail to turn it in.
Teachers and administrators at PHS say they don’t know why a child would not turn in completed homework, but it happens.
Freshman year is typically turbulent. Students gain more freedom and responsibility, but often lack the maturity to handle it, teachers say. The academic conferences are part of a larger effort to help freshmen acclimate to high school, and to ease the transition between middle school and high school.
That period of time is often marked by decreased test scores, and a drop in grades.
When students begin failing classes, Conley said the problem “snowballs.”
The next year, a student would have to retake any classes failed in addition to that year’s grade-level courses. Requirements eat into time for electives, and students become frustrated. Some drop out.
“The idea is to catch them early,” Conley said.
Many of the students who find themselves in academic conferences also appear in a similar program for attendance. However, the attendance program involves all high school students, while the academic hearings for now focus on freshmen.
The process begins when the school sends out a letter to a child’s parents with a meeting date and time.
The meetings last roughly 15 minutes, and students sign a grade improvement plan vowing to attend class regularly and on time, among other things.
Teachers talk to students and their parents about available tutoring, and also the online system Edline, where students can check assignments and parents can keep abreast of current events, and check a student’s grades.
During the fall semester, 46 meetings with parents were scheduled. Of those meetings, 57 percent were completed, but parents failed to show up 24 percent of the time.
Conley said apathetic parents are frustrating, but there’s little the school can do.
“We can offer, but if they don’t show up ...” he said.
Overall, Conley said parents are grateful for the effort. “The parents that come in want their kids to be successful.”
Students also sometimes need work on time management or organizational skills, said guidance counselor Don Heizer.
Conley said freshmen usually fail the greatest number of classes, followed by sophomores. The number of failures drops off during junior and senior year.
“They get it,” Conley said. Students begin to understand the stakes, and become more mature.
At first, students failing three or more classes took priority for the conferences, but Conley said the school then worked backward to students who were failing fewer classes.
This year, the program is a pilot, but Conley says he’d like to expand it to include other grades. Resources, however, are always an issue.
Heizer said the school’s educational philosophy has changed over the years. Where previously, kids were on their own to succeed, failure is no longer an option.
“To me, even it’s one kid,” it matters, said Conley.