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WA: Helping late graduates pays off

 

Everett School District boosted its graduation rate significantly by looking at the data about dropouts and focusing on supporting late graduates.

Summary: School officials in Everett, Washington, believe that each student deserves the opportunity to graduate from high school, even if it takes a student longer than four years. The district has developed a system of academic interventions to support extended graduates and, as a result, has increased its on-time graduation rate as well.



More than 83 percent of high school students in Everett, Washington, graduate within four years—an impressive statistic considering that in 2003 only 53 percent of students earned a diploma. But Everett’s on-time graduation rate tells only part of the district’s success story. During that same period, Everett’s extended graduation rate, which tracks the percentage of students who earn a diploma within five years, jumped to more than 90 percent. School officials believe that supporting extended graduates makes all the difference.

"The Board recognized that we needed to improve graduation rates dramatically," says Sue Cooper, who spent 25 years on the Everett School Board. "Although it is important, and most desirable, to have students graduate on time in four years, we felt that it was also important that students who had fallen behind be given extra time to graduate. … We felt that graduation was more important than graduating on time."

That philosophy transformed the district as school officials shifted from viewing students as a group to viewing them as individuals, explains Edwin Peterson, School Board president.

District Characteristics
Name: Evert Public Schools
State: Washington
Type: Suburban
Grades: K-12
Enrollment: 18,835
Students per teacher: n/a

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 35%
English language learners: 9.0%
Students with disabilities: 12.3%
White: 64.3%
Black: 4.4%
Hispanic: 12.2%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 13.2%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 1.2%
Other: n/a
Source:State of Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction State Report Card

"We changed our focus from every student to each student," Peterson explains. "Each student has a unique story and our education program is an element in helping them fashion a future. By zeroing in on each student we had a focus, an individualized program. … Things come up in life that can interfere with a student’s ability to promptly complete the task [of earning a diploma] and the district should be accommodating so they can get that degree."

But before district officials could develop those accommodations, they had to determine why students were not graduating in the first place.

So they formed the On-Time Graduation Committee, a group of high school principals, instructional specialists, and key central office staff, to address the issue. The committee, which still meets weekly, analyzed the district’s graduation and drop-out data, student transcripts, coursework, and teaching and grading practices, among other elements, to identify the potential hurdles preventing students from earning their diplomas.

The data analysis revealed that the district had not tracked student transfers diligently to confirm that all students who left Everett enrolled in other school systems, explains Terry Edwards, chief academic officer. That oversight created an inflated drop-out rate for the district. To clean up the data, the district used a new state student identification system to locate former Everett students enrolled in other Washington school districts. The district also now has a staff person who contacts other state education agencies, talks with students’ friends and families, and monitors social networking sites to confirm when students enroll elsewhere and re-enrolls students who actually drop out of school. Through these combined efforts, Everett’s drop-out rate decreased from 11 percent in 2004 to 1.5 percent last year.

With the new data systems in place, the committee then focused on identifying potential barriers to graduation. Initially, many committee members believed that the state test was the greatest obstacle facing students, says Edwards. But the data showed that the state test held very few students back. The majority of students not graduating lacked sufficient credits because they failed multiple classes during their high school careers, Edwards explains. Of those students, 40 percent failed just one class a semester, and most of them missed a passing grade by just a few points.

"In our system if you fail one class a semester you won’t graduate on time," Edwards says. So the district created intervention strategies to identify and support those "one F" students, as Edwards calls them.

By working with the district’s technology department, the On-Time Graduation Committee developed an automated process to review student transcripts more efficiently and identify vulnerable students in real time. Once the committee identified the "one F" students, members shared those names with the students’ teachers, who then provided academic support to help the students pass.

At the same time, the district eliminated several lower level math classes that had high failure rates and revised the graduation standards to require all students to complete algebra I and II and geometry. The district added academic support classes to keep struggling students on track with the more rigorous math standards and offered a computer-based algebra course, in addition to the traditional textbook course, to serve students’ different learning styles. Additionally, the district moved several high school level courses, including algebra I, to the middle school to better prepare middle school students for high school coursework and to give students more time to pass the new math classes if necessary.

But the greatest interventions came from the two "Success Coordinators" based at each high school. The Success Coordinators monitor the "one F" students at their respective schools and work with the students’ families, teachers, and counselors to provide personalized interventions, encouragement, and support to keep the students on track toward graduation. At the end of each school year, the Success Coordinators identify those seniors who will not graduate in June and re-enroll them for the following academic year to continue their studies. Those students also participate in a three-week credit recovery program where they make up missing assignments from the concluding academic year. Meanwhile, students who fail a class attend summer school for free to make up missing credits. The district even conducts graduation ceremonies in August and January to recognize extended graduates.

Everett initially relied on about $400,000 of state money from Washington’s Initiative 728 (I-728) to fund its Success Coordinators and summer credit recovery programs. When the state suspended I-728 three years ago, the district turned to federal stimulus dollars to cover the shortfall. Additionally, in February and August of 2010 the district petitioned the community for additional local money and voters approved two educational program levies, which will provide approximately $8.6 million in combined revenue annually for the next four years. A portion of that funding will support Everett’s on-time graduation programs.

"The last three years we’ve been doing budget cuts and that’s been hard," says Peterson. "So far we have kept the Success Coordinators and the outreach to at-risk kids in tack. [But] we’re wrestling with how to do all the things we’ve been doing.

"Funding for the Success Coordinators was something that the Board supported and encouraged ... and we’ve seen our [graduation] rates go up annually. It’s validating. We set out to dramatically improve our graduation rates and we are."

Lessons Learned
  • Focus on individual students. "The shift of focus from thinking of kids in the aggregate to thinking of each student, one at a time, and owning the responsibility for the success of each student had the greatest effect on improving Everett’s graduation rate," says Karen Madsen, who spent 12 years on the Everett School Board. "We simply had to express our belief that we didn’t care nearly as much about the AYP goals related to on-time graduation as we cared about kids [actually] graduating, regardless of how long it took them to get there."
  • Have a strategic plan that the school board and staff support. "There needs to be a strong belief shared by the Board and all staff that each student can learn to high standards and, therefore, graduate on time," says Sue Cooper, former Everett School Board member. "Having a long standing strategic planning process kept the district focused year after year on improving student learning. Our commitment to improving student performance and graduation rates helped us stay the course and dedicate the necessary resources to accomplish this goal."
  • Prepare for difficult funding choices. "We have cut some support classes and class sizes have increased, but when we ask our staff what we need to preserve [in the budget] the Success Coordinators and on-time graduation are always at the top," says Edwards. "As money gets tighter we still see the value of these activities so we are making those remaining dollars stretch."
  • Personalize the issue for teachers and staff. The On-Time Graduation Committee provides each teacher with a list of students failing just that teacher’s class, explains JoAnne Fabian, director of Everett’s Office of Instructional Support and On-time Graduation. The strategy shows teachers where they can have the greatest impact with their most vulnerable students, while keeping the task limited to a finite number of students.
  • Be persistent. Everett has taken nearly seven years to achieve the graduation rate it has today. Success depends on long-term planning, says Edwards, and other districts should not expect overnight results. "This isn’t something you fix in a year," he says. "It’s important work and it will be work for years to come."


Contact:

Mary Waggoner
Director of Communications
425-385-4049
mwaggoner@everettsd.org

Edwin Peterson
School Board President
425-754-5153 ed.petersen@everettsd.org


This story was written by Kristen Loschert, a freelance writer living in Falls Church, VA. Loschert has been writing about education issues for over ten years.

Posted: June 3, 2011

©2011 Center for Public Education

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