The absolute support of the schools' curriculum director and several teachers convinced the McCook Public Schools board of education Monday evening to purchase a computer software learning system designed to help at-risk students recover class credits and get closer to earning their high school diplomas on time.
Curriculum director Gayle Sharkey and math and science teachers Karen Miller and Cathy Jones and elementary principal Lynda Baumbach told board members at their February meeting that the course work in the A+ Learning System is not a watered-down, easy-out for a student to earn credits for a class he/she is failing. Miller said of the A+ algebra II coursework, "This is not a pud class." About trigonometry, she said, "It is a tough course."
Sharkey said that the A+ system addresses the way students learn today. Even today's kindergartners, she said, are "digital natives" who respond well to technology. The A+ computer system improves the delivery of instruction to students who are not responding well to more traditional teaching methods, she said.
Sharkey said that having students struggling with their coursework is not a problem individual to McCook, and that nationwide, educators are alarmed by declining graduation rates and increasing drop-out rates. She said that although there is no quick-fix, "no one single problem, and no one single solution," schools -- McCook included -- must do something quickly to help at-risk students. "We don't have time to wait," she said, and added that there is an urgent need in the McCook school system for the A+ on-line curriculum.
Although the A+ learning system can be set up to align with a school's curriculum guide for core classes, McCook will use it initially for credit recovery -- helping students earn graduation credits for successfully completing coursework that they are struggling in or failing.
The A+ system is correlated to Nebraska state standards, Sharkey said.
A student must be referred to the program by a teacher and counselor/advisor, have parental permission and sign a contract agreeing to terms of successful completion, which include commitment, attendance, punctuality and proper behavior.
Jones told board members that the A+ learning system is the only alternative learning system that she can support. "I want a rigorous course. I have high expectations of my students and am very demanding of my students," she said. "They need learning to go along with a grade." She said A+ is a "good opportunity" for kids to catch up and graduate with their class.
Baumbach also said that she approves of the A+ learning system. "It doesn't make sense to flunk algebra I the first semester, and take algebra II the second semester," she said. A+'s algebra I online course can help a student catch up so that he/she can successfully move on to algebra II, Baumbach said.
She said that at McCook, A+ will not replace the school's LIFT alternative school (although it can be used to enhance that program), and that A+ coursework will not be available in every subject, and not automatically available to students from their freshman year through graduation.
The board heard a similar presentation in April 2008 when it was asked to purchase the A+ system but turned it down because board members said they needed more research. Board members Shane Messersmith and Larry Shields still had reservations Monday evening, strongly recommending that the program be closely monitored so that students do not use it instead of first attempting regular coursework. Messersmith said that he does not want the A+ system used "as a cover-up for underlying issues" with teachers or the school system.
MHS librarian/media specialist Sharon Bohling said the A+ coursework could be set up in a computer lab, such as in the high school library, and supervised by someone not a teacher. Sharkey said the school system will need an A+ oversight committee, and 12 teachers will be trained.
The initial purchase of 60 titles of A+ Learning will cost McCook $33,813.95. The three-day training of McCook's teachers will cost $2,625. The annual fee, which guarantees access to an average of 200 yearly updates, will cost $3,500. The total for the first year of the A+ system -- $39,938.95 -- and annual updates will be paid with about $63,000 left over from the $188,000 budgeted for new math books and with about $6,000 in a federal government TeamMates mentoring grant. Purchases less than $39,999 do not require that the board enter into a bid process.
Board president Tom Bredvick admitted he was putting Sharkey, Miller, Jones, Baumbach and Bohling -- "people who are trained in educating our students" -- on the spot by asking if they support the A+ learning system, but each said unequivocally "yes." Jones said it was the only alternative learning system she could support. Baumbach said she supports the system, " ... because it makes them earn their diploma with high standards and high expectations."
Superintendent Dave Schley agreed "absolutely" with Bredvick's question about whether the learning system is "a necessity."
Board member Diane Lyons' motion to purchase the A+ learning system was approved unanimously.