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Schools target innovative ways to keep teens engaged
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If you have trouble motivating your teenager to clean his room, imagine having the task of motivating him to learn the Mean Value Theorem and its geometric consequences.

Welcome to the life of a high school math teacher. The students are there. Some of them are awake. But according to a 2004 survey of student motivation, as many as 40 to 60 percent of all high school students are chronically disengaged from school.

They’re there, but they just don’t care.

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville schools, said the school system is taking a new approach to motivating students this year.

"After these years of testing and accountability, and improvements have been made, there are still some students who aren’t responding," she said.

Dyer said she feels it is students’ connections to school that are the missing link, the feeling that an adult at the school truly cares about individual students, their learning and their future.

"To us, it’s the heart. It’s the key. Without that, we won’t be too successful with anything else," Dyer said. "It’s missing in high school particularly. I think that’s what’s missing for students to hold on and graduate."

The state Department of Education reports Gainesville High School’s graduation rate at 77 percent for the 2007-08 school year, which ranks above the celebrated statewide average of 75 percent. Dyer said the system is taking a new approach to grading procedures and is recognizing the power of teacher mentorships in an effort to get even more students to graduate.

Gainesville High School principal Chris Mance said it’s time schools put as much focus on the student-teacher relationship as they do on test scores.

"This is the new society of education where test scores drive everything ... they drive our (federal) funding," Mance said. "... But I think we’ve got to realize where our kids are coming from today, their background and the value of education in their family.

"A lot of their culture dictates their schooling. Some kids’ cultures would have them drop out of high school at 16 and get a job ... and a lot of female students feel they’re supposed to get married. These are the things we fight," he said.

Mance said the school began using homework labs for failing students last year. But this year, school faculty made it mandatory for students grading lower than a 69 in a subject to report to a 45-minute homework lab at 7:35 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. twice each week.

Students’ teachers are waiting at the homework lab to help students with the troublesome concepts. In the labs, students have the opportunity to work one on one with teachers, asking them questions and revisiting material already covered in class.

Once a student’s grade falls below a 69, a parent is notified of the mandatory homework lab requirement and is called in for a parent, teacher and student conference. At the conference, all three parties are asked to sign a contract outlining the steps the student, teacher and parent must take for the student to earn a passing grade.

Systemwide, teachers are being asked to revamp their grading procedures.

At the elementary school level, students have a week to redo an assignment before a poor grade is determined. Dyer said instead of just slapping students with a "30" test grade early in the semester, teachers are being asked to give students constructive feedback on assignments so they may have a week to learn the material and review their mistakes. A new assignment, such as a presentation to the class, may take the place of the poor test grade.

"Our traditional grading practices have been really nonmotivational," Dyer said. "A test isn’t the only way to show you know something. We’re working toward a new way of thinking about what grading is."

Hall County schools superintendent Will Schofield said students also struggle with motivation because they often see little relevance between their course work and their life goals.

"That has become so missing in the American school experience," Schofield said. "... What we’ve got to do is to teach our students how to connect the dots, to see that it’s meaningful and useful."

Hall County schools are responding to the motivation crisis by providing students with opportunities to explore their career interests before graduation. Earlier this month, the state awarded Hall County schools and Lanier Technical College a joint $3.1 million grant to construct an addition to Hall County’s existing Lanier Career Charter Academy program.

The construction will begin in 2009, with the addition to house a culinary arts school and student-run bistro open to the public. The grant also will expand the academy’s medical science and digital media programs to allow even more Hall County students to graduate from high school with a diploma and an industry certification.

In addition to rethinking grading procedures, Mance said every teacher at Gainesville High School has 10 to 12 students each is asked to take under his or her wing. The mentorship program is intended to provide students access to a caring adult they can trust.

Dyer said in the Gainesville school system, where 75 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and 29 percent are English language learners, a mentor such as a teacher or athletic coach can "mean wonders" for students.

"For a child who doesn’t have that, it’s life saving. Anytime you have poverty, you’re going to have that," she said.

"They talk about with the kids whatever needs to be talked about — family, life, relationships, academics, athletics," Mance said. "We do this so no kid comes out of Gainesville High School without having had a real conversation with an adult. They won’t feel like those adults were too busy."

"We want to create hope," Mance said. "We want them to respect the authority of the teacher, and we want them to have relationships with them. If we can just show that we care, in most instances, we can help them turn the corner. If they lose hope, then all is lost."

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