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TN: Working toward 100 percent

Community involvement and engagement helps raise graduation rates

Summary: School officials in Clarksville Montgomery County believe that, with the community’s help, 100 percent of their students will graduate from high school.


In 2004, 76 percent of students in the Clarksville Montgomery County (Tennessee) School System earned a diploma within four years of starting high school, better than the state average of only 66.1 percent at the time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

 However, as School Board Chairman George Giles says, “76 percent was probably better than a lot of places, but definitely not as good as what it should be.  In light of the economy, sending that many children out into the world without a high school diploma was really unacceptable.”

School officials in Clarksville Montgomery County realized they could not afford to let even one quarter of their students leave without a high school diploma.  If they wanted to ensure the future success of their students, the school system, and the community, then all of their students needed to graduate.  The district set out to achieve a 100 percent graduation rate by 2015.  Last year, the district took another step toward that goal - graduation rates reached over 90 percent in all student racial and income groups for an overall rate of 93.5 percent.

District characteristics
Name: Clarksville Montgomery County School System
State: TN
Type: Urban
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 29,138
Students per teacher: 14.8

Student characteristics
Economically disadvantaged (free and reduced price lunch enrollment): 43.9%
English language learners: 2.0%
Students with disabilities: 10.9 %

Student Racial/Ethnic Composition
White: 60.8 %
Black: 27.7%
Hispanic: 8.0 %
Asian/Pacific Islander: 2.9%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.6%
Multi-racial: n/a
Sources: New America Foundation Federal Education Budget Project and National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data
According to Michael Harris, Director of Schools, the district initially tried to improve the graduation rate by focusing on various academic intervention programs for struggling students.  The district now offers more than 70 programs for at-risk students including math and reading support, alternative learning environments, preschool and elementary interventions, and high school credit recovery.  Throughout the years, the school system has received more than $3 million in competitive federal and foundation grants, and a portion of those awards have funded the district’s various intervention programs, explains Candy Johnson, Community Relations Coordinator.  The school system has also relied on general purpose budget funds and recently appropriated about $200,000 for a reading intervention program for middle and high school students.
After four years of the intervention programs alone, the district’s graduation rate had improved to 88 percent. But district officials wanted to do more. 

“You can only do so much internally as a school system,” says Harris.  “We thought the only way to move that [percentage] forward was to involve the community.  The school system is making sure we have the intervention programs in place, so we challenged the community to get involved too.” 

In 2008, the district launched the 100% Graduation Project, an initiative designed to engage businesses, churches, and nonprofit groups in the school system’s push to have 100 percent of its students graduate from high school. 

“It’s almost a cliché to say it takes a village to raise a child, but it actually does,” says Giles.  “The more people you have in your life that are encouraging you and helping you, the greater your chance of success.”

School leaders wanted to create a community-wide culture to emphasize the importance of graduation, so their strategy focused on encouraging local businesses to donate time rather than money.  The district developed a list of 15 ways businesses could support the 100% Graduation Project and school officials asked project partners to commit to at least five of them, such as offering flexible work schedules and study breaks to student employees, rewarding academic performance and school attendance with gift cards or other incentives, allowing employees to volunteer as after-school tutors, or simply visiting the local high schools.

Initially, people in the community were skeptical about the district’s plan, says Elise Shelton, Chief Communications Officer.  So the district compiled data about how an improved graduation rate would impact the overall community, and then presented those findings to key leaders in the local Chamber of Commerce, Johnson says.  The Chamber of Commerce joined the effort immediately and encouraged area businesses to support the school system.

“When you look at the recruitment of new businesses to the area, one of the first things they look at is the workforce and they look at the graduation rate,” Johnson explains.  “We know that recruiting more businesses here is a gain for everybody…Research shows that when you have more high school graduates you have a safer community and the crime rate is lower.  You have a more educated population and more jobs coming into the community.”

That message resonated with business leaders like David Smith, president of DBS and Associates Engineering, Inc., who joined the 100% Graduation Project at the beginning.

“When you look at it from a purely economic standpoint, it’s probably one of the best investments in the country we can make,” says Smith. “If you take these students and we help them become productive citizens, they graduate and they have the life skills to earn a living.  We turn them into taxpayers and consumers.  We turn them into productive citizens who are not only out there making money and spending money, they also have a desire to help their community and see it grow.”

Initial partners, like Smith, school district staff, and School Board members spread the 100% Graduation Project message throughout the community and convinced other businesses, churches, and community groups to join the effort.  As a result, the school system now has about 110 community partners and a 100% Graduation Project committee that meets quarterly to discuss ways to engage additional community groups and encourage students to pursue their diplomas. The school district even offers weekly bus tours to community members interested in visiting the schools.

“This program has evolved into more than just an initiative,” says Johnson.  “We’ve opened our schools to let the community see the challenges the students are facing.”

Moreover, the school system has incurred few costs associated with the initiative thanks to the in-kind contributions it receives from its partners.  For instance, last year the City of Clarksville adopted a resolution supporting the initiative and installed signs throughout the community proclaiming “100% Graduation is Clarksville’s business.”  Similarly, the local newspaper designed the program’s logo for free and area churches have set up computer labs and study space in their buildings where students can work with tutors after school.  Most of the school system’s expenses include stickers and balloons for program events and time from existing district staff, Johnson says. 

School Board Chairman George Giles says the district must now maintain momentum and excitement for the project to raise the graduation rate the remaining amount.

“We’ve seen dramatic increases.  As we shoot for the goal of 100 percent, the gains are going to be more incremental, but the things we have in place should get us very close to that 100 percent,” he says.  

The initiative “brought in a lot of people who didn’t have children, who in some cases felt like they didn’t have a stake [in the local schools],” Giles continues.  “But when they looked around at their employees who are teenagers or looked at their church, they realized they could make a difference with these children.  They realized we can all help find a solution.”

Lessons learned
  • Schools must communicate their needs to the community.  “It starts with sharing your story,” says Johnson. “If you are not doing a good job communicating with the public, you won’t be able to have a successful community support effort in place. And you have to open your schools up [to community members].  It’s a partnership.”
  • Community engagement is not a short-term solution. It is a long-term commitment. “If you are going to do this program, don’t think of it as being a [public relations] push. Think of it as something you are going to stick with long term,” says Harris. “To make this work you have to think long term and stick with it so that it becomes part of the culture of your community.”
  • Think creatively about intervention programs and community involvement. “Step outside the box that you are used to thinking in and embrace new programs that are outside the way elementary, middle, and high schools have traditionally done teaching,” says Giles. “Don’t hesitate to involve anyone you think will impact a child’s life.”
  • Have confidence in your program. “You have to believe that every student can graduate and you have to be committed to finding programs in your district to help those students who are struggling,” says Johnson. Harris agrees and adds, “There is something important about community involvement in schools. If you have something that is real and people can latch on to, they can move achievement.  Student achievement can change because the community changes their attitudes.”


Candy Johnson, Community Relations Coordinator

Phone: (931) 920-7955
Email: candy.johnson@cmcss.net

George Giles, School Board Chairman

Phone: (931) 358-9732
Email: ghgiles3@aol.com

This story was written by Kristen Loschert, a freelance writer in Falls Church, VA.  Loschert has been writing about education for nearly 15 years.

Posted: June 27, 2012

©2012 Center for Public Education

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