Strategies for Students “In the Middle”

The Slice – March 2013: In Our High Schools | In Our Middle Schools | In Our Elementary Schools

Is a “C” in high school a good grade? The principals at both Palo Alto high schools say yes because it is a “passing” grade. Some Palo Alto parents of C students would disagree. Fortunately, in Palo Alto high schools, there are many resources and options available to students “in the middle” and their families.

The school profiles of both Palo Alto High School (Paly) and Gunn show that there actually aren’t that many C students. At Paly, 75 percent of students in the class of 2012 at Paly earned at least a 3.0 or B grade point average (GPA), while at Gunn it is even higher, with 82.2 percent of students last year graduating with at least a 3.0 GPA.

“There is a high-achieving culture in the Palo Alto school district,” said Phil Winston, principal of Palo Alto High School, “It is not easy to be a C student here even though we know that academic success is not directly proportional to effort.”

While some parents and students demand more rigorous AP and honors courses with weighted grades to get into elite schools, Winston said the PAUSD also keeps a focus on the lowest performers with D and F grades, offering strong support programs to help them graduate.

“Parents of C students should not worry that their child won’t go to college or have a bright future,” said Sandra Cernobori, college adviser at Paly’s College and Career Center, funded by Partners in Education (PiE). “They absolutely can find a two or four-year college that is a fit for them. We may also recommend some excellent gap year programs and work opportunities as an alternative. My advice is different for each student depending on their goals and their course selection in high school.”

Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos agreed, citing the experience of a student at Gunn who wanted to work in the automotive industry at BMW. This student excelled in Gunn’s extensive automotive education program and was able to find a work experience internship in Germany following high school.

“Focusing on students’ strengths in high school is a good approach,” Villalobos said, adding that some don’t master core academics but can be very successful in art, automotive, sports or music courses, for example. “Our goal is to help all students find out what they do well by offering lots of electives, clubs and work experience programs to light a fire in students,” she said, noting that some of these courses and programs are funded by PiE.

“C students are my unsung heroes at Paly,” Winston said. “Many of them work so hard to get those grades because academics are not their strength, while some A students don’t work nearly as hard. “

Finding Resources

“We all want our kids to function optimally in high school, getting the highest grades they are capable of. Sometimes intervention is the right strategy for struggling kids,“ said renowned psychologist and “The Price of Privilege” author Madeline Levine, who spoke in Palo Alto recently on a tour to promote her latest book. “Find an advocate – a teacher or guidance counselor – who will go to bat for your kid, whether it’s in motivating them to work harder, fine-tuning their skill set or helping them believe in themselves.”

Starting in middle school, guidance counselors, who are partly funded by PiE, proactively identify C students as they prepare to transition to high school and make recommendations to their high school counterparts for possible support and learning environments that might help them.

At Paly, Winston said student advocates are also the Teacher Advisors (TA’s), who make an effort to know each of their assigned students well, starting in sophomore year, and can provide hands on feedback and support. At Gunn, Villalobos said the guidance counselors play the same role, but often it is a teacher, she said, who sparks a passion for learning in a student.

Villalobos also cited the PAUSD decision to standardize assignments and support on the “Schoology” online portal as an important support tool for parents and students. “Now all students know that all homework, instructional supplements and support materials will be posted on Schoology and that’s where they should find links to on-line textbooks and self-assessment materials that can help,” she said.

Support Programs and Tutoring

“Focus on Success” is an opt-in program for “struggling” students offered at Paly and Gunn, offering study and organizational skills. At Paly, Winston mentioned that “Saturday Tutorials”, offered several times a semester, are increasingly popular, where teachers are available in all departments to assist students with any assignment they need help.

Both Winston and Villalobos said their schools offer free adult and peer tutors for all students, thanks to PiE and community support. While parents often resort to private tutors for their kids, Winston noted that “these are very costly options that not everyone can afford and aren’t necessary.”

College and Post-graduate Options for C Students

Cernobori said that while college admissions have gotten more selective in the last six years, if a C student has taken the right courses to meet the admission requirements for California State Universities (CSUs) they can attend a 4-year college somewhere.

“CSUs accept a minimum 2.0 GPA but most of them are “impacted” by enrollment limits imposed by the state budget,” Cernobori said. “Locally, only CSU East Bay is accepting 2.0 students with the minimum required test scores while most others are admitting students with higher GPAs.”

College options that have worked for C students at Paly include some private four-year colleges, art colleges, technical institutes and culinary academies, military colleges, and public universities in neighboring states with declining student populations. “My message to parents is not to write off certain colleges and college alternatives because you aren’t familiar with them,” Cernobori said. “If you have an open mind and are willing to compromise, lots of schools and opportunities will be open to your C student.”

“Grades are complicated,” Winston mused. “There is something to be said for accepting the student that you have and recognizing that they are a wonderful human being. Ten years out from graduation, many of these kids often look the same as the high achievers in terms of accomplishment because they wind up finding a vocation that is right for them.”