Western Heights Public Schools Superintendent Joe Kitchens stood in front of students, parents, teachers and community members and pointed to a projected image of the letter “D.”
“You see a D and you don't like that, nobody does. But this is the reality we face,” Kitchens said of the grade Western Heights Middle School received on the state Department of Education's performance evaluation.
Kitchens said subcategories such as math and reading received F grades.
During a French toast breakfast Saturday in the school library, surrounded by books and Christmas decorations, Kitchens said there was no skirting the truth: Students are in need of academic help.
“When I hear that half of these kids are passing, what I think is that half of these kids are facing some serious issues,” Kitchens said.
In an attempt to resolve some of the issues, Kitchens, along with middle school Principal Randy Atkins and teachers, parents and community leaders, organized a grassroots initiative called the One Kid Challenge, or “OKC” for short.
“Our goal is to get one adult with one child for one hour once a month,” Atkins said.
He said adults will meet with students once a month on Saturdays beginning Jan. 5 to focus on math and reading in particular.
Eighth-grade science teacher and program volunteer Nicole Jones said even if the adult volunteers have not been trained to teach, their involvement is critical to the students' success.
“I help in math, but that's not my specialty,” she said. “Just for an adult to show that they are willing to learn with the students gives them a positive outlook on education.”
Atkins said the majority of adult volunteers are teachers, librarians and parents.
School counselor Tricia Powell said middle school is a tough place to be, even without the stress of class work.
“There's so much stress, particularly in these kids' lives,” Powell said. “They deal with home issues and social issues and oftentimes there's a language barrier. Our point with this program is to stress that, even despite everything else going on in their lives, these kids are in school to learn, to have the chance to succeed.”
Kitchens said the school's high rate of absenteeism is one factor in poor academic performance.
For the 2011-2012 academic year, Kitchens said, the attendance rate was 93.4 percent, compared to the statewide average of 94.8 percent.
“There is a direct correlation between the rate of a student's attendance and their academic performance,” Kitchens said. “We did a study with OSU a couple of years ago that showed that the top three factors that impede academic success are attendance, discipline and mobility.”
“If you think about it, those three factors are related,” Powell said. “If the student is mobile and always moving between schools, often they're going to be absent. Then the stress of being the new kid can cause bad behavior and discipline problems. If a student's basic needs aren't being met, if they're not in a stable environment, it creates a fundamentally unfair situation for them.”
Kitchens said stability is the key to academic success.
“The less turnover you have with the staff and with the students, the better,” he said. “Right now, the attendance laws in this state say that often if you move, you don't have a choice to stay at the school you're at, and I believe that children and parents should have the choice.”
Atkins told the students and volunteers on Saturday he isn't sure what results the program will yield.
“We're trying to move everyone forward,” he said. “Our first goal is to get this D to a C. We'll start there.”