Club 9 students savor a new experience – success

By Paul Archipley | May 02, 2012

When one of the students in Mariner High’s Club 9 used the word “hypocrite” correctly during the course of a class discussion, teacher Sondra Ordway just had to smile.

It was one of the vocabulary words the ninth graders had studied previously and, for that student at least, it stuck – another small victory for students and teachers alike.

For the students in Club 9, victories are a new experience. All of them became part of the Mariner experiment because they were identified as, at best, unlikely to graduate on time, and, at worst, probable dropouts.

Of 65 students who were enrolled into the new program last fall, the most at-risk of them failed state-required tests in both reading and math in the eighth grade.

Statistics show, too, that ninth graders who fail English 1 are unlikely to graduate on time.

Statewide, on-time graduation rates are just 72.7 percent (Class of 2010). At Mariner that year, it was worse, 68.1 percent. (Kamiak, by comparison, graduated 93.8 percent on time.)

Mariner is both blessed and cursed with a diverse student body. It is culturally rich, racially mixed. Nearly 60 percent of the students are non-white. Students and teachers agree the school’s diversity makes for a more rewarding high school experience.

But it also means some students come from cultures that don’t place a high value on education. Some speak languages other than English at home. Many are poor; in fact, more than 64 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Others come from troubled homes. Alcoholism, drugs, abuse – the list goes on.

Those students who struggle academically usually have some of those obstacles, and more.

They’re used to failure, expected to fail. Absenteeism is high. They’re not engaged, just putting in the time because the law requires it.

Mariner’s staff decided to try a new approach, to help those students change course, and Club 9 was born.

Through an intensive, focused, collaborative effort, a small group of teachers work together to help those students improve academically, of course, but behaviorally as well.

With the help of state funding, the teachers have a common free period to discuss curriculum, students and other issues – and to provide each other support.

“We need each other’s support,” teacher Maureen Kelley said. “We knew from the beginning that it would be hard.”

Club 9 students began to figure out the teachers were working on the same page, so expectations are consistent across the board.

From simple expectations, like showing up on time, with a writing instrument, to unbendable rules, like doing homework, teachers are setting and maintaining standards that many Club 9 students rarely honored before.

Club 9 students also have come to appreciate the familial atmosphere, realizing these teachers are particularly focused on student success.

Assistant principal Tami Nesting, who helped launch Club 9, told the school board recently that they’re “changing the culture.”

“Most of these students come from a feeling of failure,” Nesting said. “We want to change the way they view themselves, to have pride in themselves and their work, where success becomes the norm.”

About three-quarters of the way through the school year, Club 9 teachers are feeling good about the results.

“One of the things this program does is build relationships,” Ordway said. “We really know the students, so we’ve had some amazing turnarounds.

“Between all of us, I’m sure 90 percent of the kids are close to at least one of us.”

Kelley said she has students who started out the year slouching in the back of the classroom, refusing to engage in class discussions.

Today, on their own, they’ve moved to desks at the front of the class; their hands go up first; they’re even talking about going to college.

To be sure, ninth graders are not an easy group to work with in the best of circumstances. With one foot still in childhood, the other stepping toward adulthood, they can be annoying, exhausting, even exasperating.

Rex Summa, who has been teaching math about seven years, likes working with ninth graders. But he admits there are days…

“Most days are like a battle,” he said. “But there are days when I think I can’t come to work today; I’ll come tomorrow.”

Still, the opportunity to work so closely with other teachers, to have the extra planning period, and to watch students who weren’t given much hope start to blossom, all make this year special.

“This is my best year of teaching,” said nine-year teacher Ordway. “I love the collaboration.

“It feeds my soul. It really does.”

That love for their profession is part of the reason this particular group of teachers signed on for Club 9.

“They came in with a passion for students,” Nesting said.

And that’s an important ingredient for the Club 9 mix. The group agrees these students can succeed, in fact are succeeding.

“Their greatness is yet to be discovered,” Kelley said.

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