PLEASANT VALLEY — The song was “Ring of Fire” and the singer was Pleasant Valley High School softball coach David Bryant. The acoustic guitar in his hands was somewhat in tune, and the audience was about 20 seventh-graders sitting in his classroom Wednesday.
As Bryant belted out the song, student Connor Crump threw his arm around the neck of a classmate and they shouted along with the lyrics to the delight (or dismay) of his fellow students. Usually, the 20 minutes after lunch, designated by faculty as “Raider Time,” is set aside for learning about emotional control, bullying, scholarships and healthy relationships. On Wednesday it was set aside for Johnny Cash.
“It’s an opportunity to share lessons every day and add our own experiences into those,” Bryant said after the song. “The students get to know me a lot better and we get to let down some of our barriers. It’s positive for them and positive for the school.”
Raider Time at Pleasant Valley and a similar time block at Weaver Elementary has earned both schools recognition this month by the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools. The organization, which gives educators professional development training, recognized a total of 24 institutions statewide. Weaver was noted for its “Academic Opportunity Time.”
Both schools’ programs carve time out of regular lessons to make room for specialized teaching. Raider Time is used to share life skills with students, while Academic Opportunity Time brings students who are falling behind their grade level in reading, math or other subjects back in line with expectations.
“We talk about real-life experiences, job interviews, how to do resumes, we do our senior project in Raider Time, and that’s all about getting prepared for college and job applications,” said Mark Proper, principal at Pleasant Valley High.
Adam Goosby, a teacher at the school, said that he, his wife, Jena, who is also a teacher there, and Proper went to a conference a few summers ago in Nashville and heard success stories from educators there who used similar programs. He said that the Alabama Board of Education mandates 40 minutes of mentoring per week, for 20 minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but Pleasant Valley decided to have sessions every weekday.
Senior Blake Bentley said that he used what he learned in Raider Time to apply to Jacksonville State University, and he won a $30,000 academic scholarship based on his application and background. He said he plans to be an education major, and when asked what he wants to do with the degree, he grinned and pointed at Goosby before saying, “I want his job.”
Proper said that in two years of telling them about scholarship applications, scholarships for seniors went from $1.2 million in 2016 to $3 million with the same number of students last year.
“We were the largest of the county schools, the largest amount,” Proper said.
Weaver Elementary’s program operates in a similar way to Raider Time. For 45 minutes each day, students in grades four through six are intermingled into groups based on academic need, if they’re below grade level in any subject, and get lessons to fix that deficit.
“It kind of came out of necessity,” said Summer Davis, principal of Weaver Elementary. “We have kids that for whatever reason — maybe the kid has moved around a lot, maybe not gotten the hang of reading — we want to give them their very best shot before they leave us.”
Students who are at or above grade level spend their time working on a rotating list of projects; sometimes that’s robotics, and sometimes it’s developing stage plays.
Davis said the program has had a marked impact on the number of responses to instruction plans — specialized plans for individual students to bring them up to grade level in each subject — in the three years since the program started. By the end of the 2016 school year, 58 students needed a plan. At the end of 2017, there were 43; in 2018, it was down to 25.
Davis said that the scheduling strategy is a progressive way to teach that’s only come into favor over the last five or six years; schools around the county are picking up on it, she explained, and launching their own schedules.
“Administrators as a whole have all collectively seen that we have to do some things differently,” she said.