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Ensuring Your High School Reaches All Students

Authored by Cathy Sankey, Speaker, Presenter, President/Founder See.Believe.Do.

One of the greatest challenges of being a high school principal is cultivating, developing, and implementing a way to help struggling students. And not just some of them, all of them.

First, you must collaborate with your staff, parents and students to cultivate a culture of learning. Everyone must understand that you are on a journey to become a school of learning, a school of hope for 100% of your students.

In order to do this your schools must have a clear focus on learning rather than on teaching. In many high schools, students are either lucky or unlucky. They are lucky if they have a teacher committed to ensuring learning---one that aligns assessments to standards, benchmarks or learning targets, provides specific and prescriptive feedback to students, supports students in tracking their own progress in the learning process, and understands that learning, rather than time, is the constant, thereby encouraging and insisting on re-dos, re-takes and additional learning opportunities for students.

But many high school students are unlucky. They have a teacher who is more focused on teaching than on learning, one that “covers” content without assessment alignment to standards, benchmarks, or learning targets. Students often only receive feedback in the form of grades or comments on summative assessments, rather than diagnostic or formative assessments that focus on learning. Once a grade is assigned to an assignment, the unlucky student has little or no opportunity to improve his/her own learning, often leaving the student with a low or failing grade early in a quarter, with little or no hope for improvement.

Much educational research supports the need for developing an intervention or academic support process for struggling students, including Professional Learning Community research developed by Richard DuFour and Robert Eaker. The central question for schools to answer becomes this one: How do we respond when students do not learn? And students do not learn every day in our schools.

As a National Blue Ribbon School and a National Model PLC School at Work, we found that as our intervention process provided learning support for students, our students and school’s learning data greatly improved. As our focus on learning and instructional and grading practices improved, the need for intervention lessened.

Want to provide intervention or academic coaching for your struggling students?

1.      Work to create a culture of learning where the message to students is that, as Jonathon Saphier reminds us in On Common Ground: This is important work. You can do it.  I won’t give up on you. (DuFour, Eaker, DuFour, 2005, P. 87). Work to become a school of hope for each of your students. Every student counts or nobody counts.

2.      Regularly monitor student grades and identify every student with a D or F. Monitor your students’ grades by grade level, by student name, by individual teacher’s name, and by same-subject teams or course subjects to better understand the big picture of your school data. Collaborate with your staff and administrative team to develop an action plan to respond.

3.      Ensure that your grades are reflective of learning. Lead teachers in professional development to determine if the grades students earn are indicative of learning or behavior. It is impossible to determine what students are truly in need of additional time and support for learning if grades given by teachers include behavior or compliance grades. Do your teachers still grade homework for completion? Why? Do your teachers still give zeroes for work not completed? Why? Does your discipline policy negate student grades as part of the consequence? Why? Be a learning leader who leads important grading discussions and initiate change with your staff.

4.      Respond and act on your school D and F data. Monitoring grades and/or school data are of no consequence if actions are not taken. If a student is not learning the standards, benchmarks and learning targets then that is a learning emergency. Students who have an academic history of not learning become your most at-risk students. Develop a pyramid of intervention for all students to receive the opportunity for support in your building.

5.      Academic support and intervention should be by supported and enacted by individual teachers, same-subject teams, and a systemic whole-school response.

6.      Develop your master schedule based on your school learning data to provide intervention to students during the school day. Providing time for collaboration for teachers to discuss and implement intervention strategies is key. Providing time in a student’s schedule to get extra help and support is crucial. Your RTI process and intervention process should include time within the school day for support. We provided a math, English, social studies and science teacher every period so that students could access intervention support. 

7.      Intervention by invitation does not work, Develop a mandatory intervention process for students. Our teachers identified students every 4.5 weeks who needed extra help and support and issued a “Gold” card. Issuing Gold Cards was voluntary for staff, with some staff members providing the intervention themselves and some choosing to give students Gold Cards. We trusted our staff to identify students who truly needed help. Students needed to get eight signatures on their Gold Card, starting with the teacher who assigned the card. The second signature was the student’s guidance counselor, followed by the signature of the teachers who provided the extra help and support to the student.

8.      Students turned the completed card back to the teacher who assigned it. If a student chose to not engage in extra help and support, the teacher could let an administrator know who would meet individually with that student to determine a course of action for that student.

One of the most difficult steps for high schools is creating time for intervention. At our ideal implementation time for intervention, our teachers taught five periods in a seven-period day. We removed all other duties for teachers except for providing academic support for students, those with Gold Cards and those who just needed academic help. This schedule enabled teachers to establish office hours to meet with students that we posted on large laminated charts all over our building in addition to the academic content labs each period.

However, due to district budget constraints, we lost our ability to provide content labs each period. At one point we also ran an adjusted bell schedule one day per week during this time. This schedule was not ideal but certainly provided academic support time. By shortening periods that day, we made a Gold Period and students with Gold Cards saw teachers for help and support. Students without Gold Cards went to various privilege areas, with seniors receiving the most privilege choices.  We utilized classified staff and administrators to supervise students.

Another time to create time for intervention is to look at student privileges and remove those times in favor of academic help and support. For example, if your seniors have early release or late arrival, only those students who earned all A’s, B’s and C’s kept those privileges. If a student’s grade dropped, that time became academic intervention until the grade improved. 

In conclusion, providing extra time and support for struggling students is essential to the central mission of schools: a focus on learning. Every school has barriers to providing intervention time for students, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with your administrative team, your staff, your district, and your students to overcome these barriers. Our students were some of our best leaders in identifying what we needed to change in our practices to enable each student to learn better.

American education is at a crossroads, and it is up to us to change student lives through ensuring that every student learns at the highest possible level. There is no more important work in schools today than to infuse our schools with hope with a culture of learning. After all, isn’t that the fundamental purpose of teaching?


DuFour, R and Eaker, R (1988). Professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN:National Educational Service.

DuFour, R., Eaker, R, and DuFour, R. (Eds.). (2005). On common ground. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

Janice Zielinski