By Bob Skolnik
Next year, freshmen at Riverside-Brookfield High School who are starting high school behind in reading will be grouped together in a structured program designed to give them intensive instruction and support in an attempt to help them meet college- and career-ready benchmarks by the time they graduate.
Last month, District 208 Board of Education Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Instruction Kylie Lindquist presented the outlines of what school officials are calling the College and Career Readiness Academy.
"Reading is the main [subject] that will drive students into the academy," Lindquist told the school board. "We can really put a program around these students as we support their needs."
Students in the academy will take a structured program taught by a group of teachers who will have a common planning period that will allow them to review student progress and talk about how best to support particular students.
"Our goal is to the limit the number of staff that are working in the freshman academy so that we can a lot of rich conversation and dialogue among the teachers to problem-solve around individual students," said RBHS Principal Kristin Smetana.
Smetana says she expects that about 75 freshmen will be in the academy next year. Students will be chosen based on their performance on the PSAT 8 test that eighth-graders took this fall.
"We're in the process of going through their scores and placing students," Smetana said.
Students scoring low in reading and who do not appear on track to meet benchmarks will be placed in the academy; they will take a reading class in addition to their freshmen English class next fall. Depending on their scores, the reading class will be either 76 minutes long or 50 minutes long.
"Many of them will just have the 50-minute reading [class]," Smetana said.
Currently, all RBHS freshmen with very low reading scores are placed into a 76-minute extended reading class.
Students in the academy will take earth science instead of biology as freshmen, because the vocabulary in the standard freshmen biology course is considered more advance. The students in the academy will take biology as sophomores. Their biology class is expected to be taught by a RBHS science teacher who has a graduate degree in reading.
A focus on reading will be infused into all of the freshmen academy classes, and reading specialists will work with subject matter teachers to give students extra attention and help.
Depending on their test scores in math, students in the academy will take either extended algebra, a 75-minute version the standard freshman algebra class, or a pre-algebra class. Smetana said that typically only about 10 freshmen take the pre-algebra course.
Students in the academy will also have a half or whole period of academic support to make sure they stay on track. Because of the extended classes and academic support, students in the academy will not typically take a social science class as freshmen and will have the opportunity to take only one elective course as freshmen.
"Right now, many of these students actually have no electives, so that's actually an improvement," Smetana said.
As the students placed in the academy go through RBHS, the plan is keep the targeted program in place for these students but reduce the number of classes in the program by one each year.
"Our intention is to expand this academy as they go through their career at RB," Lindquist told the school board.
Students in the academy will also be exposed to college and career opportunities through field trips and speakers in an attempt to widen their horizons.
All the students in the freshmen academy will be assigned the same counselor and social worker, and one dean will also be assigned to work with students in the academy to emphasize the team approach.
School board members liked what they heard about the academy.
"It's nice to see a plan in place to catch kids before they fail," said school board member Gina Sierra.
Board member Tim Walsh also seemed impressed.
"It seems like a very logical approach," Walsh said.
Smetana said that she isn't too concerned about stigmatizing students who are placed into the academy.
"I think we're excited about being able to create a community among the students and among the teachers to give the students the supports they need and also to be able to expose them to college and careers," Smetana said.
School officials will brief the parents of incoming freshmen about the academy when they meet with incoming freshmen and their parents on Future Bulldog Night on Jan. 17.