Will Dunman, principal of Rim Country Middle School, waits at the front of the classroom, organized piles of schoolwork are on the desk in front of him.
The bell rings.
Out in the hall, most students grab lunch bags and rush to the cafeteria. But in room B-18, the students for whom Dunman waits file into the classroom to take a seat. No lunch for them until they finish class work they missed.
Dunman, a bespectacled, kind-eyed, compact man with a very short haircut, (he says the barber got a little too enthusiastic with the clippers), administers the U-turn program every day at lunch.
Originally supported by the GEAR Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate) federal program, U-turn teaches children responsibility for their homework while making sure they grasp the curriculum taught.
“Pull out your homework, while I take roll call,” said Dunman.
Some students have nothing on the desk in front of them.
“Is your homework turned in?” he asks one student.
“Instead of typing it, I wrote it and gave it to my teacher during the day,” replies the student.
“You’d have been cleared if you gave the work to me in the office this morning. You would not have had U-turn if you’d given it to me. I would have cleared you,” said Dunman.
U-turn is the new name for the former junior high school program MASH (Mandatory After School Homework) started in January of 2009 by Kristi Ford. She received a GEAR Up grant to support the program. The purpose of the GEAR Up grant is to increase the number of low-income students prepared to enter college by improving their performance in school.
Nationally, the program resulted in a big increase in the percentage of students performing at or above grade level, according to a U.S. Department of Education report on the performance of schools receiving grants from 2004 to 2005. The share of students at or above grade level in English rose from 36 percent to 49 percent, and in math from 32 percent to 44 percent.
Teachers in Payson triggered the application to the program when they went to administrators three years ago asking for help making students do their homework. The teachers found that the students who failed to do their homework often did not grasp the concepts taught. A zero in the gradebook proved insufficient incentive to do the work for many students, said Ford.
Looking for answers, Ford and other teachers went to the Vail Arizona school district, to study its MASH program. The Payson school district representatives saw the program in action and studied the results. Seeing the gains in Vail, RCMS (Rim Country Middle School) decided to implement the program.
To prepare, each teacher agreed to work after school twice a month, and administrators made space for students to study, said Ford.
The first day of MASH, the students simply didn’t believe the school would actually hold them accountable for missed homework. Eighty-seven students received MASH on that first session in January of 2009.
“It was an interesting day. It was a wake-up call (to students) that they (school administrators) were really going to do this,” said Ford.
As the program continued, more students finished homework and the number “MASH’ed” went down to 24. Grades began to improve and the number of students failing on their progress reports went from 79 to 23, said Ford.
Another interesting phenomenon, students started asking to receive MASH.
Ford explained that some children come from homes where parents work multiple jobs or homes with no quiet space in which to do homework. For these students, having a place to get the homework done made all the difference in the world, said Ford.
Dunman has not had as much time with the program, but already sees the same problems some students face in finding a place to do homework at home.
“I get to know the kids. One was very honest that he couldn’t get homework done at home,” said Dunman.
The principal has heard stories of children coming home to an empty house and remaining alone until 10 p.m. One student told him their mom simply sets the alarm clock for 7 a.m. and they have to get themselves up and ready for school alone. This lack of parental guidance leaves many students without the structure they need, said Dunman.
“We have to teach them there are consequences,” said Dunman.
The U-turn program at RCMS kicks into gear the day after a student misses an assignment. Teachers fill out a ticket that determines the subject area and time, details the assignment and indicates which lunch period the student attends. It also tracks how many U-turn tickets the student has received.
Teachers attach any worksheets or other information to help the student finish their homework.
Every day, Melissa Hollobaugh, the student services secretary in the office, collects and records the U-turn tickets teachers have filled out. She creates a spreadsheet for Dunman to organize the students and their homework.
Already Dunman has repeat offenders. U-turn gives students 10 opportunities to participate in the program. After they have used up their 10 chances, Dunman hopes he’ll understand the individual needs of the student well enough to coordinate with teachers and parents and design an individual program to help that child succeed in school.
Throughout the lunchtime homework session, Dunman shows respect for the students.
Dunman asks one boy, “You don’t want to do extra credit?”
“No,” the student said.
“I’m giving you the opportunity for extra credit and you don’t want to do that?”
“OK, come up here,” said Dunman as he motions the boy to the front of the room to speak with him privately. He whispers intently to the boy, looking at him directly in the eyes. His voice never gets loud enough for the other students to hear the conversation until the end when he finishes with, “It’s your choice, I’m not going to force you.”
The student returns to his desk, finishing up the last bit of homework required of him.
Dunman makes notes, then tells the children, “OK, as soon as you bring up finished work you may go to lunch.”
With each student, Dunman checks them out, making sure they either turn in complete work or agree to attend U-turn the next day.
For Dunman and Ford, it’s always about the students.
“In my humble opinion, that’s what education is all about. Reaching one student at a time,” said Ford.