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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Using Staff Expertise to Increase Graduation Rates

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.

What's Next?

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.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Tammera Williams's picture

It is unfortunate that the media focuses on the negatives associated with student progress. The schools in Clark County Nevada (Las Vegas area specifically) are targets of this negative reporting. It would be wonderful if the media would focus on the positives.

In an elementary school in Las Vegas, wherein the student population is 94% Hispanic with many of those students being English Language Learners, there are devoted teachers who are spending an hour every evening after school hosting homework and tutoring clubs. These clubs are free to the students, and enable them the opportunity to get extra help with difficult assignments, or simply the encouragement to try to complete homework they might not otherwise complete. There were Saturday classes for fifth grade students to improve their writing skills last year, and they are anticipating the same such workshops this year. The list goes on about devoted teachers spending the necessary time to help children succeeed.

Wouldn't it be great if the media focused on the positives of education for a change?

Carolyn Claxton's picture

I agree with you when it comes to charter schools, they are definitely not a good representation of student success. In most charter schools students are selected based on their academic performance. If a child is selected from the lottery that is a behavior problem they will eventually be sent back to their home school. We are doing an injustice to our children because often times we only focus on the problems that we are faced with. Educators, administrators and parents need to identify the problems and focus on the solutions to those problems. When "we" begin to do what is in the best interest of children the success rate in all areas will improve.

Erin ODea's picture

Even though the media does not always focus on the positive changes in education, it's nice to hear some inspiring stories about schools that are working to make changes.

It seems that while Everett School District's goal was to increase graduation rates, the result was an increase in student learning. The school district took a positive step in creating numerous committees to focus on student success. Sometimes teachers feel overwhelmed while trying to complete numerous tasks throughout the day. It was a wise decision for the school to take a holistic approach to reach their goals by involving various departments. As a result, student success increased due to the collective effort of everyone involved.

Elizabeth Corney's picture

I found this blog very interesting. In schools across America, there are teachers that are going beyond the call of duty to ensure success for our students. Sometimes, it doesn't even take much! I think it's very eye opening for both the teacher and the student to see which class the student is failing, especially if it's only one class. Not only should it give the teacher some insight, but it can be informative for the student as well. It gives the teacher an opportunity to determine exactly which type of conflict has developed and from there, the teacher can begin to solve the conflict. Bravo to Everett Public School, for caring about our future!

Collis Grisby's picture

Using the strategy of teacher collaboration would be a great platform to discuss this issue. Maybe a teacher is doing something in their class that can by transferred to the class that the student is failing. In Mississippi we asked for an understanding for how the graduation rate was calculated and the best explaination that they gave was that it goes into effect for those students entering the 12th grade and the number of credits that they have. With each school requiring a different number of credits, it is based on a school projection for that year. If a student transfers to another school during the course of that year and does not have the proper paperwork on file, they are automatically considered a drop. In addition, if a student goes into the GED program they are also considered to be a dropout on paper. This program seems to be a good method for tracking data and identifying students before it is too late. Every school in the state has a Drop-Out prevention plan along with a Graduation Rate projection for 3, 5, and 10 years but the formula is yet to be explained in the format that you described.

Susan Mulcaire's picture
Susan Mulcaire
Author, The Middle School Student's Guide to Ruling the World!

There is an excellent policy brief regarding this topic:
Putting Middle Grades Students on the Graduation Path
Robert Balfanz -- Everyone Graduates Center and Talent Development Middle Grades Program

I can't find a direct link, but if you Google it - you'll get it.

mike lieber's picture
mike lieber
Technology Education - New York

The reason the media is so down on us and the reason charter school are getting a good rap at the moment is do to the fact that charter schools deal with students and parents that WANT to learn. That leaves the rest to US. IF we continue to offer the same learning experiences to all levels of students in the same classrooms and looking for the the same results form these students, we just continue to dumb down the upper kids. We need schools within school, tracking, different level classes, call it what you like but students need to be taught to thier highest level of ability. To differentiate IN the classroom is becoming more and more difficult due to many factors but we need to give kids what they need individually Great Job Everett!

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