Cassville junior devises new peer tutoring program

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Principal: 'Idea was answer to my prayers'

Denton

Cassville High School Principal Jeff Swadley says when he is faced with a possible problem, he often turns to prayer in hopes it will be solved.

Worried about having too many of his students in Advisement for Career and Education Success, the school's afternoon tutoring program, Swadley said an answer to his prayers came in the form of one of his students -- junior Zach Denton.

Enrolled in the A+ Program, Denton approached Michelle Johnson, high school counselor, with a powerpoint presentation detailing his idea to have he and his fellow A+ scholars assist in ACES classes by tutoring students whose grades may be falling behind.

"After school one day, we had an A+ meeting about how to improve the school, specifically ACES," Denton said. "I thought a lot about what the school needed, and about a week later, I came up with the idea that we can have A+ tutors in ACES so those with lower grades can get some help."'

The program, entitled the Student Tutoring Enrichment Program, a name Denton and his father collaborated to devise, was implemented not long after a little student-administration collaboration and a meeting with about 20 A+ students, all of which agreed to come onboard.

Swadley, who started as Cassville High School principal this year, said he has set goals for the school to focus on three things: Student improvement, improved instruction and school spirit. He was worried larger class sizes in ACES might create a problem for teachers, as the larger the class is, the tougher it is to give one-on-one instruction, and he prayed for an idea to take away that concern.

As it turned out, the numbers were not as lopsided as he thought they would be, but the STEP idea was too good to pass up.

"[Zach] was truly an answer to my prayers," he said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh. How did I not think of that?'"

Juniors and seniors at Cassville, if their grades are in good standing, are allowed to leave school early as an incentive for working so hard and keeping grades high. Those struggling with their grades participate in ACES from 2:44-3:15 p.m., aiming to improve those grades over a three-week period to obtain the go-home-early incentive.

"[Johnson] was super excited, because she didn't know exactly what I was praying about, but she knew there was a little concern," Swadley said. "We don't want any kid to fail. We want to make sure we can remediate any kids having difficulties and help them learn at a deeper level, and giving one-on-one tutoring is much more successful."

Swadley said what makes Denton's STEP idea so great is that it is a peer tutoring program, and students tend to be more open with their fellow classmates than they are with teachers.

"Peer-to-peer tutoring is better because a lot of kids feel uncomfortable saying they don't get something, and they are more likely to admit they need help if it is to one of their peers," he said. "High school kids also speak a different language than I or the teachers do, and students helping student is ten million times better because they can speak to each other in their language."

Swadley said the even more impressive part of the STEP program is that the A+ students are going above and beyond the call to duty. The A+ Program includes a rigorous set of goals set for students that, if completed, result in college scholarship money to in-state schools, and it requires students to complete at least 50 hours of tutoring, which can be done at any of the district's schools from the primary school to the high school.

"Half of these kids doing the tutoring have already got all their hours, but they still volunteer," he said. "They are doing it just to make Cassville High School better."

Swadley said there are at least 10 students in the program that have surpassed 180 hours of tutoring, but are still volunteering in the STEP program four days per week.

He said the selflessness among the students, coupled with the collaboration between students and the administration, is just one part of what makes Cassville High School so special.

"We are taking great value in the needs of the students, and the only way to do that is to ask them what their needs are, be it with tardiness, missed classes or their grades," he said. "We are interviewing kids and using many of their ideas. The kids are not running the show, but they are part of the show, and it's up to us to make sure their opinions matter because they are why we are here. That's the real idea."

Along with participating in STEP, Denton also tutors at Shell Knob Elementary School two days per week, and he said helping others and seeing the click when they understand something is a great feeling.

"It's great to help them get something after seeing them where they want to give up and not do their homework and fail the class," Denton said.

Denton added the implementation of the STEP program is showing him how much the administration cares about the students and their success.

"The whole administration here has been focused on the student experience as a whole, instead of test scores or any other state requirements," he said.

Swadley said he enjoys hearing the ideas of students, then turning those ideas into action.

"It's very cool that this is student-initiated and mostly student-led, and it's very exciting to have this kind of student engagement because the more of their education they own, the better off we will all be," he said. "Success breeds success, and the confidence this program gives to students is amazing."

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