Each year, my colleagues and I design and implement plans focused on supporting our academically vulnerable students. For schools like mine, the percentage of incoming students who are not prepared for high school is astonishing. Imagine an incoming freshman class where over 60% of students are performing several grade levels behind – especially in the core content areas of math and reading.
For those who follow trends in urban education reform, the idea that schools can be overwhelmingly populated by under-prepared students is not a new phenomenon. However, what remains true is that schools experiencing this challenge must have a clear strategy in place focused on interrupting the cycle of low achievement that traps scores of young people.
The most commonly deployed strategies usually involve heavy reliance on blended learning initiatives, schedule manipulation, and overly used canned instructional programs. This isn’t to say that either of these strategies, individually or collectively, are worthless; however, the quick wins that they produce (and that we crave as educators) do very little to address the full range of academic problems that paralyze many students.
Often times – usually following some period of use of a particular intervention – schools will assess students and report how much progress they’ve made. Unfortunately, our eagerness to see students move rapidly towards an achievement goal blinds us to an inconvenient truth: the student is usually still not academically prepared despite strategic intervention. Sadly, even the superhuman efforts of the most dedicated teachers are often inadequate to fully equip under-performing students with the skills they need to be competitive. These students need something more – and different.
The Innovation: A Gap Year
It is not beyond reason to think that skills-deficient students might be better served by a gap year – especially when transitioning from middle to high school. In theory, a gap year would serve as an opportunity for students to prepare for the rigors of high school study. Imagine a scenario where they would participate in an uninterrupted year-long support program focused on strengthening core academic skills. The benefits would be tremendous. First, students would avoid being transitioned into academic spaces that would only confirm their lack of readiness, and second, they would simply be more soundly prepared.
For years, we have seen a similar strategy play out in post-secondary institutions. Newly admitted students who have not met certain requisites are routinely scheduled for non-credit yielding courses. While the student’s performance in most instances does not count towards a degree, it also does not affect critical metrics like grade point average and class ranking – effectively preserving the student’s academic record which might have otherwise been irreparably damaged. After successful completion of a battery of remedial courses, the student usually emerges with the ability to engage more meaningfully with their area of academic focus.
This quasi-disruptive innovation could align perfectly with a gap year high school preparedness initiative. The most glaring difference, though, would be a program that would run the span of an entire school-year rather than relying on interventions interspersed throughout the student’s normal course of study.
An Idea, Not a Silver Bullet
If we know nothing about education reform, we at least know that there are no silver bullets that will resolve the crises that we see in public schools across this country. We also know that smart and daring innovations can yield positive results if there exists the courage and fortitude to initiate and implement them. No, a gap year for struggling students is not a foolproof innovation, but it is undoubtedly an idea worth considering.
Just maybe if we are brave enough, we can step away from historical practices that aren’t good for kids and implement new ones that have real promise. Just maybe.
Duke Bradley III is principal of Benjamin Banneker High School in College Park, Ga,, and is deeply interested in matters of education reform. He has been involved in this work as a school leader for the past decade in both charter spaces and traditional district schools – from New Orleans to Atlanta.