Making it harder for ninth graders to slip through the cracks

December 13, 2017
BARR teacher leads group activity

Stillwater Area High School (SAHS) may look big on the outside, but on the inside teachers and staff are working hard to make the school feel small, safe and welcoming for its new class of ninth grade students.

Teachers are connecting with students like never before, and getting to know them personally as well as academically. It’s all thanks to a new program called BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks).

“Out of everything we’re doing at the high school, BARR is the one that will make the biggest difference academically for our students,” said Principal Rob Bach. “BARR is creating relationships with kids that make our school feel small and personal.”

With the addition of ninth graders to the school for the first time this fall, teachers and staff were committed to finding ways to help transition students and support them in their first year. BARR helps break down a large class of 700 ninth graders into five smaller blocks of between 90 and 150 students. The students share the same teachers in the core areas of social studies, English, and science. A special education teacher also serves as part of the team.  

By being part of one of the five blocks, the students interact more often with some of the same classmates and teachers and have opportunities to get to know them more deeply. Each week, they participate in a short activity within one of their core classes designed to encourage team building, while strengthening relationships and developing real-life skills.

“Ninth grade is such a critical year,” said Claire Turro, science teacher. “When we can give students the support they need, to identify a problem and intervene quickly, we see better graduation rates in the end. Building relationships is the foundation. They cannot learn without it.”

The heart of BARR is collaboration between the core teachers. As a team, each set of four teachers meets weekly to discuss the students they have in common. They talk about successes they’re seeing, as well as any challenges they’ve noticed. They discuss grades, but more than that they also discuss changes in behavior or emotions, interactions with other students, or any family or home situations they’re aware of that may be impacting a student’s ability to learn.

“Our goal is to talk about every one of our kids at some point,” said Katy Pupungatoa, the BARR coordinator who also provides one-on-one and small group academic support to struggling ninth graders. “We’re creating a big support network to look out for our kids. Our teachers just don’t give up on the kids. Once you have that personal connection with them, how can you give up? Students know they can’t get away with much.”

During the weekly meetings, teachers look at a list of students who are struggling academically and talk through strategies they might use to help support them. They also call in other experts - such as counselors, school psychologists or nurses, or chemical and mental health providers - to talk through some of the social or emotional challenges students may be facing.

“These are the most important conversations for teachers to have, and before BARR they were the first to go in busy, chaotic days,” said Jill Rusignuolo, English teacher. “I mean, they’re conversations about kids. It allows us to care about kids together, instead of caring for them in the isolation of our own classrooms.”

Staff are already noticing the difference BARR is making. While national research indicates that ninth graders in a four year high school typically have the greatest number of failing grades, that isn’t the case in Stillwater. At the end of first quarter, SAHS ninth graders had fewer failing grades than students in grades 10-12. Teachers hope that trend will continue as students move up to tenth grade next year with the strong foundation of support started with BARR.

“It’s a lot tougher for kids to slip through the cracks,” said Dave Kahl, a science teacher. “In the past, if they’re struggling in your class you might just think it’s only you. Then you find out from other teachers they’re slip sliding away and you’ve got to be there to catch them. Together, we can address what otherwise may have been missed.”

Learn more about BARR online.