BATTLE GROUND — A visitor to Battle Ground High School social studies teacher Stephanie Etulain’s class would be hard-pressed to guess her students were anything short of longtime best friends.
Her afternoon world studies class is full of teenagers who giggle together, tease each other and celebrate each other’s successes.
But for most of them, what ties them together is the shared experience they had in the inaugural Tiger Core class last year, a new program launched in hopes of supporting students who may otherwise have fallen through the cracks.
The way Battle Ground teachers tell it, launching the program was a gamble. The students, about 30 in all, were selected because they were struggling academically, but it was unclear why. While their state assessment data was average, many had D’s and F’s in eighth grade.
But they were students who didn’t have the typical markers of at-risk kids. Their attendance was mostly good, and their discipline records clean.
Principal Mike Hamilton, with the help of his associate principal and three teachers, designed the program to help these struggling incoming freshman students receive more one-on-one attention than they might in larger classes.
“There seemed to be a disconnect between their achievement in school and what we were seeing around that data collection,” Hamilton said.
The Tiger Core students were split into two classes of about 15, and spent the core part of their day together in language arts, math and a directed studies class taught by Etulain, where students could work on homework, missing assignments or confide their struggles in their teacher.
“They had three teachers in this building that were specifically picked because we care about these kids,” Etulain said. “I think that motivates them.”
With time, teachers found a group of students who needed the individualized attention the program offered. One child’s family had moved frequently, meaning he was never at a school long enough to be screened for special education classes. Others had experienced trauma, or adverse childhood experiences, in their personal lives. Some needed counseling, or another adult to open up to.
“What we found was with that particular group of students that first year was indeed they were in need of that real social, emotional support at school,” Hamilton said. “When we gave that to them, they thrived.”
Early academic markers have, thus far, been impressive. Math teacher Sherri Wilson said she had a student whose scores grew by three grade levels.
“I shared that with the kids and it was such a positive thing for them where they saw how much growth they personally made,” she said.
Language arts teacher Bob Amble said his students became more confident with time.
“You can see them expressing themselves more, being more assertive in the face of so many struggles,” Amble said.
‘The best class ever’
Last year’s cohort of Tiger Core students are in Etulain’s world studies class this year — an intentional effort to keep students motivated, she said — and often wave to, say hello or visit Amble and Wilson at school.
Ian King, 16, said he only did the “bare minimum” when he was in middle school. “Excellence” was not in his vocabulary. But when he started putting more into his studies and saw it reflected in his grades, it made a profound impact on him.
“This is the best class ever,” Ian said. “School was something we were always dreading. A lot of us came out of our shells.”
Bree White, 15, saw her grades increase from F’s and D’s to A’s and B’s. Having one-on-one time with teachers has helped her manage her emotions, and given her a group of friends she can rely on when she’s stressed.
“That made learning so much easier,” she said.
The real numerical mark of success will come in 2020, when these students are slated to graduate. Research released this month by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research suggests ninth-grade grade point average strongly predicts whether students graduate, and whether they go on to college.
But the personal stories from students and their families have so far been overwhelming, Hamilton said.
“I had some parents get very emotional during the last school year,” he said. “Saying things like ‘This is the first time my son or daughter passed all their classes, the first time they’ve enjoyed coming to school, the first time they’ve been successful, the first time they’ve felt valued at school.’ “