We've been hearing a lot recently about how the problem with our schools is the people in it -- the principals, the teachers and especially their unions. Or the problem is governance. Clearly kids can't perform well because the system is keeping them down. If only we had more charter schools -- that would solve everything.
But there are no quick fixes. And I wish the media would pay more attention to the success stories: those public schools and districts who looked at themselves in the mirror, recognized the need to change, and did so.
Washington's Everett Public Schools is one such district. In 2003-2004, just 53 percent of Everett's students graduated on time. But today they have an on-time graduation rate just under 84 percent -- and an extended graduation rate of more than 90 percent.
How Did They Do It?
According to Everett's Chief Academic Officer Terry Edwards, one of the key factors in their success was creation of the "On-Time Graduation Committee." It includes every high school principal and all of the special education and English language learners (ELL) categorical administrators in the district. They meet every week and focus entirely on the graduation issue.
One early conclusion: The district needed to move from numbers to names. Schools had a hard time understanding what a 53 percent graduation rate really meant. So now they get a name for every number: Your graduation rate is 83 percent. That means 17 percent of your kids are not on track to graduate. Here are their names. Here are their credits. Here are the classes they need.
To provide that data, the district created a "Graduation Trajectory," a simple tool showing exactly how many credits a student needs each point in his or her high school career to be on track to graduate. It's an easy way to see who is on track and who is not.
Once a kid is identified as off-track, he or she becomes the object of a "success coordinator's" attention. Two success coordinators support the counselors in each high school (one in the alternative school), focusing only on kids who are not on track for graduation. They help kids get registered for the classes they need, follow up to make sure homework gets turned in, and offer other support.
Everett also looks at the kids who fail classes. In the past, there was a notion that these kids didn't care, or that their parents didn't care, or that this group of kids used drugs and alcohol. They were a stereotype. But the district found that 40 percent of kids failing a class failed just one class. They were successful five times a day.
The district shared that information with teachers, and they came up with the "one F letter." Each week teachers get a letter letting them know which kids are failing only their class. It shows them that a kid is successful elsewhere, and suggests following up more intensely with that child in that class. And it works. The district has reduced the "one F kids" by 25 percent. It actually saw the number of all failures decrease, as teachers began following up more intensely across the board.
Of course, the district has implemented a number of other strategies as well in their quest to increase graduation rates. Some have worked, and some have not. But they've kept at it, and they've been successful.
The next goal is to increase the college-going rate. While they have a 54 percent college-going rate (up from 17 percent in 2004), they aren't satisfied. They are now working with local community colleges to move some of the programs that worked in the high schools up, and to expand their college in the high school programs.
I find the Everett story inspiring, for a number of reasons. Rather than buying into many of the major reform strategies floating around today, they used the experience and knowledge of the people in their system to solve their systems' problems. Hopefully others can learn from their example.