TUPELO • The Positive Alternatives for Continuing Education program meets in a converted computer lab inside Tupelo Middle School’s library. Students enter wishing they were down Cliff Gookin Boulevard at the high school. This quiet room offers a fresh way of turning that into reality.
Every PACE student has been retained at least once. Some are two or three years behind and therefore at a greater and greater risk of dropping out once they turn 17.
“At this age, 12 to 14 years old, retention can have a devastating effect on the self-esteem, motivation, and productivity of students in the classroom,” Tupelo Middle School Principal Brock English said. “Retention is utilized only when we have exhausted all other interventions.”
Across the country, schools struggle with ways to help students who have fallen multiple grades behind their age peers and to keep them motivated to eventually earn their diplomas. Trying to address this issue, new Tupelo Superintendent Rob Picou brought the PACE program to the school district this year.
Away from the traditional setting, students in the PACE classroom move at their own speed to independently work through Apex Learning – a digital curriculum endorsed by the College Board. Richard Trotter, the adult in the room, is more of a facilitator than instructor. Instead of listening to multiple teachers throughout the day, students engage one subject at a time for as many weeks as it takes to finish their eighth-grade course requirements.
Then with a fresh experience of academic success, they move onto the high school to rejoin their peers.
“My motivation was to get with the high school and get with the right age,” said Caelen Triplett, a 16-year-old who was in the PACE classroom during the first nine weeks of this school year and is now enjoying the JV basketball team at the high school. “Mr. Trotter showed us a different way of looking at teachers and looking at school.”
The Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion act requires third-graders to score a level 2, 3, 4 or 5 on a state reading test in order to be promoted to fourth-grade. This past school year, 93.2 percent of students passed.
Starting in this school year though, students will need to score a 3 or higher in order to pass. If that standard were in place last year, the state’s pass rate would have dropped to 73.8 percent and over 7,000 additional third-graders would have been retained.
Next year in Pontotoc City, kindergarten through second-graders will need to master 80 percent or above of the standards in the core subjects of reading, English, and math in order to be promoted to the next grade. For third through 12th grade, they need a 64 to pass.
“We feel like if students miss some of those core skills in elementary school, it’s important to give them another year to develop,” Pontotoc City Superintendent Michelle Bivens said. “In general, retention is a much more effective strategy for elementary students than middle or high school. However, it is always a last resort.”
While researchers and local educators agree that elementary retention based on literacy tests is a safe strategy to reduce dropouts and increase graduation rates, 15, 16 and 17-year-olds who are still in middle school need to catch up much faster.
The only visual distractions in the PACE classroom are motivational quotes on the walls. Students sit at desktop computers with dividers between their neighbors. Trotter allows them to listen to music through headphones.
Five students spent the first quarter of this school year there. Four completed their English requirement to advance to ninth grade with plenty of time to spare.
“My first reaction when they told me I had to go back to the middle school, I thought I was going to have to be there all year. That’s what scared me. ‘The whole year?’” 14-year-old Ashton Brown said. “There’s less distractions in there, and Mr. Trotter taught us that if we focus we can get where we want to be.”
Another PACE student, who could have been a high school junior, completed eighth-grade English, science, math, Mississippi studies and a high school health class all in the first nine weeks of school.
“You’re giving them some hope. Hope was the bottom line,” Picou said. “We are brutally honest. My first meeting with them, I said ‘I know you feel behind, how could you not feel behind, you’re 17 years old you’re still in the 8th grade? But what would you say if I gave you the opportunity to accelerate and catch up, would you believe me?’”
Picou began last April and decided to develop the PACE program over the summer after speaking with English about the problem of high-school age students still in middle school. As part of an application to receive District of Innovation status from the state education department during the 2020-21 school year, TPSD is exploring the possibility of offering online classes to a wider range of students.
The Apex Learning digital curriculum teaches one unit at a time. Each one begins with an overview and study section. Then students take a test. They can take the test until they pass. No two tests are the same.
Trotter can follow each student’s progress through each unit on his own computer screen. If he sees a student is stuck, he will intervene. If a student is steadily progressing, he won’t bother them.
“I tell them, ‘I will stay out of your business as long as you meet my expectations,’” Trotter said. “You would be surprised how much students just want adults out of their business.”
After graduation from the PACE program, students rejoin traditional classrooms in the high school. Graduation is not suddenly a guarantee, but a recent experience of academic accomplishment is a new base of confidence.
“For these students, it’s not a lack of ability to do the work. It’s a lack of motivation. It’s ‘I’ve not seen success in school, so I don’t want to try,’” Trotter said. “But when they see that success for the first time and their eyes light up. I look at them and throw my hands up because they did it. Nobody did it for them.”
The PACE classroom is a short detour on the long road towards graduation. When the traditional classroom model has repeatedly failed a student, TPSD offers an alternate route for a students to put themselves back on track through their own independent work.
“I’m up on it now. I’m more serious about school,” 15-year-old C.J. Davis said. “No way, we’re not going to drop out. We knew you’ve got to get your work done and stop worrying about other people.”