Investigating Fee-Free Academic Support
by Chris Ouelette
Director of Academic Skills Center
Miss Hall's School
Welcome back to another installment of the NEALS blog. As I sit here on our return day from the November vacation, I return to a puzzle that has perplexed me since I began working in boarding schools: How can a school be inclusive of all students’ needs if the institution charges an extra fee for entrance into the academic support program?
As I began to dive into the research on this paradigm, I found Academic Support fees ranging from $1,100 to $9,995 per year. Some schools allowed financial aid to fund Academic Support while others did not. Some schools made entrance into the program mandatory for admittance, while others relied on voluntary entry into the program based on team conversations with families. Schools also employed many different models for the academic support provided. Making sense of this data, my brain yearned to yell: “JUST GET RID OF THE FEES!!!” What I have found, is that the solution can’t be to simply eliminate the fee; there is so much ground work to lay first. As I find myself at an institution that both wants to/and can eliminate the fee for academic support, I wanted to share with you where we are with the process.
The thing that makes this an achievable goal is having a Leadership Team that is all in on the desire to be as inclusive as we can be for the students. With that key piece secured before I arrived at my current institution, I finally felt like I could see the beginnings of my professional desire: a fee-free academic support program. The first step that I could tackle as we moved from year one to year two was reducing the number of service levels offered from four to two. This was done in order to make scheduling of students more uniform, allowing for more equity of resources among students. It is important to note that the notion of equity in academic support is subjective; obviously some students need more support than others. The results have been positive thus far, support times have become more uniform, and we have been able to deliver services in a ratio of 1:1. The second step this year was to increase the connection between the three learning centers on campus. Connecting with the Math Center and Writing Lab at the start of the year helped to strengthen the links between the three centers on campus. While we have only been able to actualize two steps this year, I wanted to share the next steps in this journey.
Eliminating a fee-for-service model requires the alignment of multiple moving pieces; moving away from a deficit-based language, collaboration and support of teachers, and eventual curricular redefinition:
-Academic support programs are often thought of as a place for struggling learners to access the support they need. This can give the impression that only struggling learners need help, which feeds into the ideas of smartness/normalcy that need to go away. Allison Isbell, Co-Principal at Elizabeth Irwin High School, reminds us that “great learners ask great questions, great learners come here, and great students ask for help”. Changing our shared language is essential to supporting a fee-free program.
-One of the best parts of shifting programmatic focus is reminding classroom teachers of all the supports that they can provide in their classrooms. It is important to help shift the mindset that only the academic support staff can address executive function weakness, as all teachers can help students improve in those areas. While there will always be students who benefit from sustained work with a learning specialist, classroom teachers are more than capable of providing support in organization of notes, and subject specific study habits. Oftentimes, the classroom teacher is better able to provide more narrowed study habit support as they know what material will be on their test. Empowering teachers to provide such resources in the classroom allows the learning support staff more time to provide specialized scaffolding for students.
-Curricular redefinition is where we get to think of all the things that we would like to be able to do if we weren’t in direct support from 8:30-4:30 every day. Can your learning specialists provide support to a whole class? Can they run workshops for classrooms? Will your learning specialists provide professional development for the teaching faculty? Do you provide opportunities for students across the whole day (academic and study hall)? Is it possible that you reach every student in your school?
I need to acknowledge that some schools just can’t move this way yet, almost always for financial reasons (as the institution relies on the income from the program). This does not mean that you should give up on this dream. I would encourage you to continue to revisit the idea with your leadership team. Push the idea of inclusivity for all our learners. While you will run into the same frustrations that I did when I started selling this idea, odds are, you will eventually succeed as our world evolves.
Thanks for gifting me your time and thoughts, I am always honored to receive them. As always, I will sign off with one of the quotes from our Hip-Hop Quote of the Day board:
“Living life is a choice. Making a difference in someone else’s isn’t.” ~Kid Cudi