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27 Jan, Friday
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Montreal Families

Teaching teens the meaning of success

Jim Aitken, principal of Macdonald High School, has heard the term “success” used often during his years as an administrator and teacher. There have been “success plans” for students and programs promising “success for all,” which included hiring more teachers, purchasing new workbooks and spending more time in class with students.

And yet Aitken didn’t feel that the end result was true success, something he defines as young people taking charge of their learning. Instead, he saw too many students — and often their parents — willing to settle for mediocre grades and endless excuses why school assignments weren’t being completed.

So about two years ago, Aitken and the teachers at Macdonald High School in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, which has 900 students, decided to get to the root of the problem and move beyond band-aid solutions. “This isn’t a quick-fix,” he says. “Instead, we are holding students responsible for their learning.”

In practical terms, this has meant a zero-tolerance approach to homework not being completed. Teachers confronted with a student who isn’t completing assignments now have a clearly defined system for dealing with the problem. The young person receives a warning and if the situation doesn’t improve, then Aitken takes over.

He meets with the parents and students to tell them that if homework isn’t done, the student must complete it at a mandatory, after-school detention — and the parents must make arrangements for picking up their child in the late afternoon. If the young person doesn’t do the work during detention, he or she is sent home until it is completed.

“We’re reinforcing the idea that it’s unacceptable to not do your homework,” Aitken says. “It also puts the student on notice that I’m watching them.”

Dedicated to students

And Aitken does watch over the young people at Macdonald. He’ll meet with them and push to find out why they aren’t working as hard as they could be. For example, Aitken recently worked with a student who had resigned himself to failing an English class after receiving a serious of poor grades on some tests and assignments. Aitken pointed out that that the teen could pass — if he did well on a final exam and completed the class work. The student buckled down — and passed.

One key to reaching students and staff is the ability to listen. So Aitken makes sure everyone knows that he is available for conversation. “My door is always open,” he says, adding with a laugh that in fact all three of his doors are open. (And a quick look around his office confirms that there are actually three entrances to his office!)

In fact Aitken’s dedication to his students has garnered him the distinction of “Outstanding Principal” by The Learning Partnership, a Canadian non-profit organization working to improve public education. Aitken was one of 33 principals given the honour in 2008 (only two were from Quebec — the other was Ivana Colatriano, principal of Willingdon School in N.D.G.).

The awards are given to principals “who have made a measurable difference in the lives of their students and their own local communities and help ensure that Canada’s young people continue to receive a quality education.”

Aitken admits he was surprised to win the award, but he is happy it has given him an opportunity to talk publicly about the need for students to be held accountable for their education.

While Aitken and his staff have been targeting the approximately 20 per cent of students who aren’t performing, they haven’t forgotten about those who do outstanding work. At Macdonald, the honour roll students are now invited to a special celebratory breakfast each year that highlights how much their academic efforts are appreciated. Aitken has also started meeting with these students to ask their opinions about how to motivate people at the school.

Aitken is keenly aware that his efforts to “raise the bar” are going to take time. “It’s a change in philosophy, not a program or a plan,” he says, with the students being the ultimate winners if they come to embrace the notion that success depends on their efforts and motivation.

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