Failing students or failing systems?

For as long as schools have been open and functioning, there have been students who fail. From problems as plain as lack of motivation, to issues that trace back to learned helplessness, students of all backgrounds have been failing. Either way, you have probably rolled your eyes in annoyance at a particularly obnoxious kid in your class that will absolutely not take a cue, even when nobody is laughing and the teacher seems on the verge of tears. Or perhaps you’ve glanced over to the corner of a classroom and noticed a student who you didn’t even know existed, simply because they refused to participate in any class activity. However disappointing, these can be everyday occurrences for some people – and both admin and students alike think that that should change.

Despite the fact that sometimes it feels like you were put into a certain class with those few certain students as a means of punishment from the great beyond, for the most part, classes at Arcata High are balanced in terms of skill level and motivation. People who want to be in higher level classes are normally the only ones in those classes – and people who just want to get a diploma and get out are normally in their own classes. Core support, study skills, and peer tutoring are crucial for this system to work, as they provide an environment for some students to finish their homework with professional help and learn essential skills with extra support. Math 1 teacher Bodhi Waller said, “It’s accepted that many students have study skills and core, and I think a lot of students see that as a good thing”. Peer tutoring is another opportunity for students who are behind or failing to make up their work and grades. It lets students tutor other students on classes that they’re having difficulty in.”I just have trouble [understanding material] in class a lot of times, so it’s nice to have someone that can explain it to me,” Sophomore Ruby Langdon explains. However helpful these classes and resources can be, sometimes a student simply needs a lower level course like English or Math 1. However, English 1 is no longer offered this year, meaning that the students who would be in that class are integrated into English 1CP. People worried that this would cause disruption, but at this point it has not made too big of a difference.

First of all, English 1 being erased does not mean that every single core class is going to be cut. At Arcata High, students need 4 years of College Prep English to recieve their high school diploma. This means that if a student takes English 1 as a freshman, it is almost impossible for them to receive all of their credits in the given 4 year time span. In this instance, the student would need to transfer to a continuation school, like Pacific Coast, in order to receive a diploma at all. This can make students less likely to want to even receive a diploma, and can hinder their career path in the long run. “I think it’s been good for students who otherwise would have been in a basic class; just to see what it’s like to be in a class of students who tend to be more academic minded,” explains English 1 CP teacher Julie Angles. Yes, by eliminating English 1, students who normally aren’t in college prep classes are now being put into courses such as English 1CP, but those same students are also given a Study Skills class, which they can use to advance in English with extra support. This method, however, doesn’t carry over into math. The difference is that Arcata High students only need 3 years of Integrated Math to receive a diploma, so taking Math 1 their freshman year still allows them to take 3 years of math in the given period of time. “We all have different math backgrounds,” Waller states.

However fair this system is, sometimes, you might not feel that fairness. Disruptive students, who no doubt deserve just as much opportunity for graduation with a diploma as you do, are still disruptive. The unmotivated kid who you got partnered with on a project, no matter how motivated they are in certain subjects, seem like they want to cause you personal pain by leaving you to do all of the work. “Some lab partners didn’t contribute as much as others, which can make it hard if you need more than two hands or a second opinion ,” explains Sophomore Meiwan Gottschalk on what it’s like to have a bad lab partner in Biology. While this is okay for students who work better alone, for the most part, unmotivated students have an impact on not only themselves and their success, but the success of those around them. “I’m still worried about what we do with the students who aren’t motivated at all,” Angles admits. Some students are simply not interested – from frustration to pure carelessness – and they can tend to take it out on the other kids around them.

Failing students are a subject that many loathe to comment on, and often because of the lack of context. “It can be really hard to tell the difference sometimes, of why some students are frustrated,” Waller stated. And of course we want these students to succeed – but only if they’re really trying. Above all, people should be held responsible for their actions, but if they’re putting in an effort and still failing, then the school itself needs to take action. On the flipside, unmotivated students who are careless about everything from their own schoolwork to the environment that their classmates need to succeed, shouldn’t be given excuse after excuse and second chance after second chance. In this way the school is faced with a massive task, determining which failing students deserve support and second chances, or if action and punishment need to be taken for unmotivated behavior. This process begs to ask the question of: is the school system we have now the right system? The only real limit to the imagination when brainstorming other possibilities is finances. There’s a limited budget, and the more inclusive a plan is the more expensive a plan is. At any rate, students will continue to fail and action either will or will not be taken. Angles stated, “I don’t think that regular education works for everybody.”

Pacific Coast Continuation High School is one such place that allows some students who don’t fit under the umbrella of traditional schooling to thrive and succeed. It’s not aimed towards failing students strictly, and can be a good option for more students than you would expect. It can be a good fit for students who have to work to support their families, students who are struggling with substance abuse, students who dropped out of school and now want to receive their diploma, or even students who just need to get in, get a diploma, and get out as fast as they can. Yes, if a student is failing they will sometimes end up there, but that takes a lot of steps and interventions on both the student and the admin’s part. Say for instance, a student is having in trouble in class at an extreme level. They stop coming to school and start abusing dangerous substances. At that point, the school administration would step in and meet with the student and the family. If at this point the student came to school under the influence and got caught, they would be put on a behavioral contract. If the student broke the behavioral contract again, even with all of the prior warnings, they would be asked to transfer to Pacific Coast. “A fraction of them are discipline related… for almost all of them, it’s related to being behind in credits,” Principal Dave Navarre stated. From students who are failing in classes due to simple unmotivation and lack of interest, to students who have multiple jobs to support their family, non traditional schooling can have a positive impact on students and teachers alike.

With all of the resources and options named in this article for students who have failing grades, it seems like there should be no reason to fail at all. There’s charter or continuation schools, peer tutoring, core classes, independent study, study skills classes, and many different staff members who are at Arcata solely to help said students- and yet, students still fail. This is all in part to a lack of resources and a flawed school system, which neither student nor teacher can change. English teacher Susan Clark-Luera sums up these ideas when she was asked about the resources and support offered to students who fail at Arcata High. “Six rivers is a great model, but it’s successful because it’s small,” Clark-Luera explains. Charter and Continuation schools are modeled to let the student connect with their teacher and form a positive relationship instead of an impersonal one that can often occur at a larger school. This obviously only works if the school and class sizes are small, because in a large class the teacher simply can’t form that kind of relationship with every student that needs help. In this way, only a certain number of students can be placed into these schools before the model becomes useless, and so if a larger number of students need this kind of schooling then some of them won’t be able to receive it. Eureka school district has one more resource that we don’t have- a community school. Community schools essentially take what charter and continuation schools start, and push it to a further degree.  A student will have one teacher that they spend the entire school day with. Everything from exercise to eating to learning is done together- and this allows a student who probably was never able to form a trusting relationship with an adult/authoritative figure to open up to someone who can help them with what they need help with. In the NOHUM district, we’re lacking this kind of environment for students who need it- which traces back to a lack of resources. “ Our student population is outgrowing our resources and that is where i’m worried about some kids- we just can’t serve everyone in the efficient manner that i would like to see,” Clark-Luera states. Without the money to build more charter, continuation, and community schools, the students that need them will be forced to continue at a traditional high school, which might not be the right for for them.

If you were to take anything out of this article, it should be that failure in school does not equal failure in life, needing help is nothing to be ashamed of, and being unmotivated in one subject does not mean that you are an unmotivated person. Continuation and community schools aren’t for “bad kids”- they’re for people who just don’t fit into traditional school. They myth of “bad” students is one that students and teachers alike at Pacific Coast would like to dispel. “I’ve heard parents say that they think that these are bad kids that go to school here, and that crazy stuff happens, and those things just don’t happen here,” Principal of Pacific Coast Jon Larson states. The school offers excellent resources and support for people who need it, and that’s the end of the story. Support that Arcata High offers is just as important as non traditional schooling as well. Core and study skills classes are extremely helpful for some students who need that resource. “When my mom first suggested [peer tutoring], she said ‘Oh, you should do peer tutoring,’ and I said ‘No, I don’t wanna be seen as stupid,’ cause that’s what I kinda thought, like: ‘Oh, if I need a tutor, it means that I’m not smart enough for this class,’. I think that once you’ve been in peer tutoring you realize that it’s not that you’re not smart, it’s just that sometimes you need a little bit of extra help, and it’s ok to get free help when it’s available to you,” Langdon explains. While bad grades obviously aren’t something that you should be striving towards, don’t let an F define who you are.