Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Accelerating Struggling Students' Learning through Identity Redevelopment

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Accelerating Struggling Students' Learning through Identity Redevelopment

Article excerpt

When students struggle in the elementary and middle grades, the likelihood that they will drop out of high school increases dramatically. Although most dropout prevention resources have focused on high schools in a last-ditch effort to keep students in school (Orfield, 2004; U.S. Department of Education, 2009), earlier interventions in elementary and middle grades provide a better opportunity to target assistance before students completely disengage (Balfanz & Legters, 2004; Kennelly & Monrad, 2007; Wells, 2000). As Robert Balfanz (2009) recently reported, students' experience in middle grades profoundly impacts the odds of graduating from high school; this is especially true for students living in poverty.

Although the middle grades can be difficult for any struggling student, it is especially so for a subset of very high-risk middle grades students-those who are one to three years over age for seventh grade. This article presents students' views about how an intervention program aimed at getting them back on track for on-time graduation helped them develop a more positive sense of their own ability to accomplish, belong, and engage in the classroom. The program was designed to accelerate learning so students completed two years of academic content in one year. While teaching the required seventh and eighth grade academic content in one year, the staff and teachers also worked with students to reshape or redevelop their identity so that they saw themselves as capable, productive, contributing citizens.

The students' comments and perspectives are consistent with the essential attributes laid out in National Middle School Association's This We Believe document (2010). Specifically, their comments indicate that the acceleration program was developmentally responsive in that students participated actively in shaping the academic and social climate of the program; it was challenging in that students who previously had been unsuccessful in school were expected to complete two years' work in one year; it was empowering because students learned to control their behavior, organize their time, and seek help when needed; and it was equitable in that all students were expected to successfully complete the program. Their comments support the recommendations presented in the Balfanz (2009) report: they became increasingly aware of the influence of their own beliefs, behavior, and efforts on their academic and social accomplishments; they wanted to attend school because they enjoyed the program and felt like a part of a "family"; and their course performance improved through individual attention and engaging, relevant lessons.

This article has two primary purposes. First, it illustrates how acceleration strategies can reengage struggling students and help them see that success is possible. Second, it emphasizes the importance of helping struggling students reestablish their identity as learners and as contributing members of a classroom community. Struggling students often believe that they are incapable of accomplishing important tasks, that they are unworthy of membership in a classroom community, and that they cannot engage in challenging curriculum (Finn, 1989). The voices of middle grades students provide evidence of the value of acceleration strategies and insight into the process of identity redevelopment.

Acceleration and identity

Acceleration

The term acceleration is used frequently in education, often to describe programs that move students faster through curriculum or deeper into more challenging content. It is most often associated with students identified as gifted and talented, but acceleration programs are increasingly serving struggling students. Finnan and Swanson (2000) defined acceleration for all groups of students, making explicit the interplay between the quality of the curriculum and instruction; the actions and attitude of the learner; and the quality, actions, and attitude of the teacher. …

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