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Putting Student Needs First

"The success of the program amazed even the teachers... By the fourth week of the program, many parents had called to thank me for the changes they'd seen in their children's behavior." - Joe Werner



"It sure messes up my budget," says Monterey County's PIC administrator, Joe Werner, about the Career Choices curriculum he introduces for 14- and 15-year-olds. "They all stayed through the program. I mean, usually 40 percent of them disappear by the end of the eighth week."

Werner was exaggerating - slightly. Actually, two of the 78 young people going through his program did not successfully complete it. We would guess, however, that most JTPA program coordinators would settle for these results, especially since the young people involved were all high risk. "Our definition of `high risk,'" wrote Werner in his official report, "meant they may be past offenders, have deficits in reading, writing and/or math, speak little or no English, attend alternative schools, have low grade point averages, have failed high school competencies and/or have a special education classification."

"We used the program with great success," says lead teacher Joanne Sullivan. "It was really beneficial. The book was great. [Students] are not being insulted. They're dealing with issues that are important to them."

A major reason for Monterey County's success, we believe, was Werner's insistence on putting students' needs first. It is difficult for participants scattered over a wide geographic area to gather at a central learning center. Fine. Send the teachers to them at their work sites. Students have different needs and learn at different rates? No problem. Split them into groups of two or three. Offer individual tutoring if needed. Be flexible. "Teach to the moment." In short, try to give students what they need, when they need it, whether the focus is on academics or social issues, even if it would be more convenient for administrators and teachers to do things another way.

As a result, the six teachers involved spent a good deal of time on the road. Most spent five hours a day teaching. Each participant received at least four hours of tutoring a week. Homework assignments were completed individually.

This brings us to another important factor: the teachers. Werner put each applicant for a job through a rigorous two-hour interview, during which he focused not on experience or seniority, but on enthusiasm for teaching and commitment to young people. Although he could pay only about half of what instructors expect to earn in similar positions, Werner had no trouble finding top-notch people for the jobs.

In addition to the individual attention participants received from instructors, they were made to feel special and motivated by the gifts each received at the program's outset - a backpack filled with a calculator, binder, dictionary, assignment/appointment calendar, folder files and dividers, an assortment of pens and pencils, and other "learning tools." Students were expected to bring these materials with them to every tutorial session and, with rare exceptions, they did. Werner notes that, though this may sound expensive, the total cost of the program, including instructors' salaries, was only $175 per student. An added benefit was that the materials worked nicely in helping participants establish a portfolio of their work over the summer to document their progress.

"The results of this project were extraordinary," Werner reported. "During class time, participants were exposed to the writings of poets, statesmen and other great authors. They learned algebra, geometry and their practical applications. For the first time, these students began to understand the correlation between knowledge, employment and education. The success of the program amazed even the teachers, many of whom had dual master's degrees and average teaching experience of six years... By the fourth week of the program, many parents had called to thank me for the changes they'd seen in their children's behavior."

In addition to studying math, reading and writing, participants received instruction that focused on avoiding "risky behaviors." HIV awareness was stressed, as were school attendance, developing self-esteem, avoiding teen pregnancy, and anti-gang activities. Career Choices addresses many of these issues, including staying in school, peer pressure, lifestyle choices and values. Instructors supplemented this portion of their program with other materials. Social issues were not discussed until the second or third week of the program so that teachers could first establish rapport with students and earn their trust.

Parents, too, were involved from the beginning. All aspects of the academic curriculum and the social issues to be addressed were reviewed with families beforehand, and parents were also informed of what would be expected from their children. Program leaders feel some of their success was due to the fact that parents and youth alike were aware of these expectations and willingly accepted them.

Another mark of participants' success and enthusiasm for the project was overall high attendance and the fact that none lost their jobs during the course of the program, an unusual achievement among this population. Even though some of the jobs lasted only six weeks, the young workers continued with the seventh and eighth weeks, completing the academic section of the program with their peers.

"It's really interesting," Werner observes. "We had a lot of gang kids. We talked about how to get out of gangs, how to say no, how to do this and do that. At our awards ceremony, five kids from the tutorial project received awards and they said they don't want to be in gangs, they're not going to be in gangs anymore, how they want to be probation officers and nurses, or do the things they read about. That was really quite rewarding for our staff."

The program report concludes, "Our intent was to expose these youth to an intensive individualized four-hour a week program that could, in a relevant way, give them the tools they need to succeed in life - not merely to succeed through academic remediation, but through exposure to literature, prose, poetry, plays, speeches and written exercises that provoked thought and promoted social awareness... We also gave them the tools to survive... In short, our objective was, through a supportive, individualized plan and a positive learning environment, to empower these youth with knowledge, enhanced self-esteem and confidence, and the ability to see the relationship between employment and educational attainment. In so doing, we helped nurture their dreams for the future and identified the steps needed to achieve these dreams."

"It was a very rewarding teaching and learning experience," says Joanne Sullivan.

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