Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time at Meadow Hill Middle School.
Students at Meadow Hill Middle School have a daily safety net to land in, whether they're struggling academically or the dog merely ate their homework.
The school's PACE program - an acronym for Practice, Activity Choice and Enrichment - takes up the final 30 minutes of every school day, valuable catch-up time to finish a school report or get some intensive tutoring.
"It's kind of a sacred time," said Kim Butler, communication arts teacher at Meadow Hill. "We can't schedule any meetings."
Every day at 2:50 p.m., students return to their homeroom and the ones who need a little extra time or tutoring are sent along to different classrooms, depending on where they need the help. On any given day, it's a fraction of the student population who get the help.
On Monday, 15 students who needed a little catch-up help in algebra sat in Tim Bolten's class as he prepared them for a major test the next day.
"What am I supposed to do?" he asked, as he wrote an algebraic equation on the whiteboard.
"Write the original equation," came the correct answer.
"Yes," Bolten answered. "And what's next?"
"Simplify the equation," a student offered.
The students in Bolten's class on Monday afternoon had to be there, under the PACE program. But nobody could ever force a child to do their homework, or study harder. So Meadow Hill also built an incentive into the program.
It's called being a Student in Good Standing. Students who are caught up on their work and maintaining a decent grade-point average are given a variety of choices for the last half-hour of the day, from playing in the school's chess club to taking a walk outside with their friends to visiting the computer lab or the library.
Since those incentives were introduced at the beginning of the school year, the DNF - "did not finish" - percentage of students who received no grade for lack of schoolwork has been cut in half, said principal Lisa Hendrix, from 6.2 percent to 2.8 percent.
"We had a 50 percent reduction," she said. "And we feel pretty strongly that it's the result of this program."
PACE and Students in Good Standing are one of the myriad strategies employed in schools as part of Response to Intervention, an educational program that emphasizes test scores and constant monitoring of progress.
Other schools in western Montana use PACE, but Meadow Hill is the only one that every day sets aside a half-hour to reach students who have fallen behind.
"I really do think the success of our program is that we use it every single day," said Hendrix, in her second year as principal at Meadow Hill. "And that was the decision of our committee early on."
Who wouldn't want, for example, to make up homework or study a little harder to hang out with friends on the playground ("Walk-n-Talk"), or participate in the chess club, have an open gym period, or spend a solitary half-hour in the library or computer lab?
"For a kid who's doing everything they're supposed to be doing, we give them options based on what they're interested in," said Butler.
At first, the options for students who achieved Students in Good Standing were limited, but the committee of teachers charged with implementing the program quickly got creative.
"Things just started falling into place as teachers began figuring out how this vision was going to work," said Hendrix. "I became the person who just wouldn't say no."
Not every student with a poor grade automatically is put in the PACE program. Students who try hard and have good attendance, for instance, may still be a Student in Good Standing.
The teachers consider context and the whole of a child's educational experiences when making that decision, said Hendrix.
"There may be a time where that (student's) D should be rewarded with good standing, and times where it should not," she said.
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.