A program that offers after-school for-credit classes helps 9th-graders recover credits for failed courses.
Danbury, Conn., is a modest city with a rich history of providing its residents with opportunities to improve their lives. As one of America’s most diverse cities (Ryser, 2016), we prioritize supporting all students and doing what we can to fight inequities, such as by reducing gaps in graduation rates, where minority racial groups often fall behind their White peers (Afterschool Alliance, 2013).
We pay homage to our heritage as a 19th-century center for hat production with the Danbury High School (DHS) mascot, the Hatter. This mascot also inspires us to think about the many hats our students wear. We know that not every so-called thinking cap fits every Hatter perfectly, and some students need one that fits better. That’s why we created the Twilight School, a credit-bearing after-school program that allows 9th graders who have failed the first semester of English or biology to retake the course and finish the year with enough credits to start the following fall as sophomores. The courses are taught by DHS teachers and feature smaller class sizes and a blended learning component. Before Twilight, the only ways students could recover credit were through summer school or an after-school, computer-based credit recovery program. Neither of these programs provided timely intervention nor were they particularly innovative.
Research strongly suggests that the key to increasing high school graduation rates is to increase the rate at which students successfully complete their freshman year (Krone, 2014; Protheroe, 2009; Roderick et al., 2014). Thus, we decided that the best way to reach our struggling students was to direct our attention to the 9th grade, a focus that we hoped would reap rewards across all four years of high school. Further, we found that among DHS students who failed one or more courses in the first semester of their first year, a disproportionate number were immigrants and students of color, so we made it a priority to ensure that our Twilight School would meet the needs of these student populations.
The key to increasing high school graduation rates is to increase the rate at which students successfully complete their freshman year.
To recruit students to the program, our student support deans worked closely with our Freshman Academy school’s counselors and principal. Once the team identified possible students, school counselors examined their records for indicators of whether Twilight would be a good fit. For instance, if a student had truancy problems, an extended learning program with mandatory attendance may not be the best intervention. Candidates who passed this screening were invited to complete an application, which included an explanatory letter for families requiring a signature. This kind of “active recruitment” (Holstead, Hightower King, & Miller, 2015, p. 43), wherein educators reach out to both the student and the family, has proven to be a key to successful after-school programs, and it certainly helped with the success of Twilight.
Of the 93 students who ultimately enrolled in Twilight School, the vast majority (81%) were students of color: 68% Latino, 11% Black, and 3% Asian. For comparison, 41% of our 2,889 students are White, 40% are Latino, 10% are Black, 7% are Asian, and 2% are of other races.
In 2015, its pilot year, the program was held after school on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 4 p.m. for a total of 15 weeks, with transportation home provided on a grant-funded late bus. The six Twilight teachers, as well as the program director, are all DHS staff members, which was important because research has shown that successful after-school programs hire staff members who are available to students outside the weekly after-school session (Friedman & Bleiberg, 2007).
Selecting which courses to offer was simple: Students most frequently failed English 1 and biology, so offering these courses would benefit the largest number of students. We offered a total of six courses (two sections of biology on Wednesday and one on Thursday and one section of English on Wednesday and two on Thursday). Offering both courses each day enabled students to enroll in both courses. In addition to the two hours of in-class instruction, each course included an online blended learning component that students completed during the week between each class. All teachers had the flexibility of developing their own assignments for students to complete outside of the classroom, so the content of these pieces tended to vary. For instance, some teachers elected to use video assignments, whereas others used writing assignments.
Although Twilight students must meet the same academic goals as in traditional classes, the learning environment is less formal. For example, in the Twilight classroom of Andrea De Lotto, a second-year English teacher, students in baseball caps tip back their heads, scarf down packets of fruit snacks, and work at group tables on how precise diction can affect their essay scores on the school’s writing rubric.
Also, because Twilight teachers have more flexibility when it comes to instruction and assessments, they are able to experiment with new pedagogical strategies, rather than repeating the same lessons that had failed to click for these students during the previous semester. To encourage the Twilight staff to find new ways to teach the same material, administrators pay them for two hours of planning in addition to their weekly two hours of teaching. This gives them time to craft more student-centered lessons that involve small-group instruction tailored to students’ needs, as well as blended learning assignments for students to complete outside the classroom.
Offering personalized, unique opportunities to recover lost credits can often entice otherwise reluctant learners.
This more personalized instruction has helped with engagement as well. Researchers have found that because high school students tend to have complicated schedules and competing responsibilities, their attendance at after-school programs “steadily declines with age” (Friedman & Bleiberg, 2007, p.1). However, offering personalized, unique opportunities to recover lost credits can often entice otherwise reluctant learners, and the Twilight program certainly offers something that other after-school programs do not: the potential for students who are falling behind to move on to the following school year as full-fledged sophomores with their peers (Holstead, Hightower King, & Miller, 2015).
As a side benefit, the program also creates opportunities to try out new teaching techniques with a small group before rolling them out schoolwide. Kris Davidson, assistant principal, and one of the first administrators involved with Twilight, notes that the strategies used in Twilight are showing up more and more in teachers’ day-to-day lessons: “Since [small group instruction] has been modeled and the resources and benefits identified, teachers have really opened up to it.”
Initial enrollment in Twilight School totaled 93 students, with 62 students enrolled in one course and 31 students enrolled in both courses. Students were permitted to miss only two classes, and some were removed for excessive absences, so the final enrollment totaled 75 students. (Average daily attendance for Twilight School mirrored that of Danbury High.)
In total, 64 students (85% of the final enrollment) earned credit. Of those students, 16 (21%) earned promotion to sophomore year due to the work completed in Twilight School, and 39 (52%) earned promotion due to both Twilight and other courses that they successfully completed during their second semester of freshman year (see Figure 1).
In the first year, Twilight cost a total of $18,719 (See Figure 2) and was funded with a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Most of these funds were used to compensate teachers and the program administrator, with a small portion spent on supplies and sundries. Because Twilight equates to one semester of work, students who were successful in the Twilight program were awarded .5 credits. With 36.5 credits total awarded, the total cost was $257 per course passed. This is far more economical than simply having the student retake the course during the following school year. Further, because immigrating to a new country does not always line up perfectly with the school year, Twilight provides an ideal opportunity for students who arrive in the late fall and early winter to earn credit that they may have lost in the fall semester.
Students’ reactions to Twilight have been positive as well. Many have cited the smaller class sizes and comfortable environment as key elements in their success, and some have noted that they appreciate being able to correct mistakes they had made in the first semester of freshmen year before falling too far behind.
Teachers expressed similar sentiments. Twilight English teacher Andrea De Lotto said that “students know that this is someone giving them a second chance. When teachers, counselors, and administrators work in tandem, students rise to the occasion.” She went on to observe that meeting with students once per week “takes them out of their routine, so they are more willing to try something different.” Likewise, the flexibility of Twilight enabled her to break out of her own “stale” routine and try new things, such as using culturally relevant texts that help students become more engaged.
Finally, district administrators have also applauded the program, choosing to give it the best gift of all: the gift of funding. After the success of the first two years, Danbury Public Schools pledged to fund Twilight moving forward. This has proved critical as the program has continued to expand, adding algebra courses for English language learners in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Providing opportunity is something Danbury has been good at for centuries. Promoting equity is what Danbury High School is trying to become expert at. A school must embrace many hats to accomplish this goal, but, fortunately, different hats are in the very fabric of this city. Whether a hat looks like the one worn by a cadet who thrives in the ROTC program or a student actor in the 2016 production of In the Heights,Danbury knows that not every hat is perfect for every Hatter. Equity means creating the right fit for every student, whether that’s all 2,889 students or just a group of 93 in need of additional support.
Afterschool Alliance. (2013). Preventing dropouts: The important role of afterschool. (Issue Brief No. 60).
Friedman, L. & Bleiberg, M. (2007). Meeting the high school challenge: Making after-school work for older students. New York, NY: The After-School Corporation.
Holstead, J., Hightower King, M., & Miller, A. (2015). Research-based practices in after-school programs for high school youth. Afterschool Matters, 21, 38-45.
Krone, E. (2014). Melissa Roderick: Ninth grade is the key to solving the dropout crisis. SSE Magazine.
Protheroe, N. (2009). Using data to reduce the drop-out rate. Principal’s Research Review, 4 (4) 1-7.
Roderick, M., Kelley-Kemple, T., Johnson, D., & Beechum, N. (2014). Preventable failure: Improvements in long-term outcomes when high schools focused on the ninth grade year. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Ryser, R. (2016, May 13). Danbury named among nation’s most diverse cities. Newstimes.
Citation: Tobin, E.M. & Colley, S. (2018). Getting back on track at Twilight. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (1), 29-32.