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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with Chris Dunning, principal of Paul R. Smith Middle School in Pasco County



dunning.jpgPaul R. Smith Middle School had a homework problem. Many students weren't turning it in. But handing out failing grades didn't seem to get at the root of the problem. So the school adopted a new program this year called Zeroes Aren't Permitted, or ZAP, which gives students extra chances to get the work done. (Read more about one of the models the school used here.) Principal Chris Dunning spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his philosophy in adopting the new system.

Why aren't zeroes an option?

The main focus is for learning to happen. So bottom line is, the more often the students are working through the information ... they're going to know it better. Ultimately if they do the classwork and do the homework, they are going to learn the information. Then they'll do better on tests and quizzes, and they'll remember the information from then on.

Why not give them a zero and make them do the work anyway?

Well, ultimately if a student doesn't do the work in the first place, they're definitely not going to do it for a zero. So that would be a difficult task to get them to do. The goal is to get the kids to learn. We're not trying to punish them. We're trying to get them to learn. Ultimately we try to get the kids go through the positive route if we can. We have negative issues come up, but we're trying to get them to get the work done. If they do the work, that's the goal for the teacher. If they learn the information, that's the goal for the teacher. We don't want to punish them twice.

Aren't you teaching them that do-overs are always acceptable?

I don't think so. We're teaching them that we want them to do the work, we want them to learn. By the fact that they are missing lunch with all their friends, or that they have to stay after school until 4:30, they are missing out and losing out on things for not doing the work. So there is a type of punishment. ... There are all kinds of examples in real life where people can be late on things and they have a penalty but they are still able to do it. Like a credit card. If they don't pay their full bill at the end of each month, they get charged a fee, just like a student could lose a letter grade. But they're still able to do that later. Just like I do with my teachers. Their lesson plans are due on a set date, but I don't automatically fire them because they missed it by a day. They still can turn them in. I still need that documentation. So we do these things with people all the time.

You're not eliminating the zero grade altogether? You're not telling people that even if they score a zero they get a 50?

No. No. They would still get a zero. If they do all the work and are still unsuccessful, they can still get a zero. The point is to get students to at least try to do the work and try to do their best. ... Ms. Holley also does work with kid on organizational skills. There are other things that are happening. Because there are kids who have done work and just don't turn it in, too. She helps them to organize their backpacks and do other things as well to get prepared. She helps set up folders and ways to track things. Because there are things causing students not to turn in homework other than the fact that they're not doing it.

Let's say they did their homework but it was the wrong page.

Most of the teachers are then just giving them another chance to do it. They're not zapping them. ... Because obviously they made the effort. This is more for the students who aren't making the effort.

How many students, or what percentage of students, have been in there already?

That's a really good question. We have been running about probably 40-something kids a day. We didn't start until the second week of school. But we were waiting until the end of the first quarter to track numbers, to see how many were repeat students and to get actual percentages on those things. ... We are definitely going to be keeping data and comparing it to last year's information in relation to privilege cards and things that we do to track student progress, to see if it's having an effect.

Look for more on this story on on Sunday.

[Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 11:51am]


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