Failure rate declines at Pittsfield's Taconic High School


PITTSFIELD -- Targeted efforts to help students succeed as they transition into Taconic High School seem to be paying off.

The improvement is reflected in declines in the percentages failing at every grade level, according to Principal John Vosburgh, who led a recent presentation before the School Committee.

He said a team approach among teachers and mentoring programs utilizing students and other adults are part of a comprehensive effort to keep students in school through what is traditionally a difficult period -- the transfer from middle to high school.

"When a student has to repeat the ninth grade, his or her chances of graduating drop by a third," Vosburgh said, adding that success in the early high school years means the opposite is generally true.

For a number of years, the principal said, all ninth-grade teachers (about 10 educators this year) have been meeting on a regular basis, sharing ideas for working with at-risk students, developing strategies and contacting other support staff at the school through the team leader when required. Those include guidance and disciplinary personnel.

"I have challenged the teachers to reflect on what they do and on what they might do differently," Vosburgh said.

The group also "does a lot of things as a team," he said, providing students with a consistent or united approach throughout ninth-grade classes.

And the group has "excellent communication" with teachers at Reid Middle School, which sends its students leaving eighth grade to Taconic, he said. "They work collaboratively with us for a smooth transition."

The results are reflected in recent statistics on the percentages who fail at each class level, Vosburgh said. In 2010, the percent held back in ninth grade was 14.9 percent, he said, or 42 students; in 10th grade it was 7.1 percent, or 19 students.

In 2011, 9.1 percent in ninth grade were held back (16 students), and 2.9 percent in 10th grade (six students).

And in 2012, only 6.9 percent of ninth-graders were held back (16 students), and 2.2 percent (six) in 10th grade.

There are about 220 ninth-graders this year at Taconic, he said.

Peter Falkowski, a former teacher team leader and now dean of students at Taconic, said that in addition to the ongoing cooperative efforts, the Check and Connect and Student Ambassador programs are providing a mentoring component that is showing results.

With Check and Connect, a national program model aimed at keeping students in school, students or adults make contact with new students one or more times during the day -- ensuring they know someone who can provide advice, information and support and encourage academic success.

"I think what can keep any kid in high school is a strong connection to a peer or adult," Falkowski said. That can mean a fellow student or adult staff member, such as a athletic coach, he said.

The contact can be "a huge motivation" to remain in school, he said, and provide someone who instills the value of having expectations of success.

Vosburgh said the connection with other students or adults can be especially effective in reaching students who are not obviously having problems and escape the attention of counselors or those monitoring discipline.

Student ambassadors are volunteers in upper classes who meet with ninth-grade students on a regular basis in home room, including an hourlong session once a month, and provide a lower level of monitoring and role models, he said.

To reach Jim Therrien:,
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