By Jeffrey Menzer
In June 2005, when I became the principal of the largest high school in Delaware, the low graduation and high dropout rates exasperated policymakers and community leaders. In the bleak statistics was a number begging further examination. A number that went unnoticed and unpublicized. A number that pinpointed the students my high school had failed.
These students made it to the end of their 4th year of high school but failed to graduate. In June 2005, these students constituted 12% of the senior class. In May 2005 there were 440 seniors, but that June only 385 seniors graduated. That’s 55 students lost at the last minute. This was the challenge I tackled for my Ed.D. thesis. For a synopsis of this research, see the May 2009 Kappan article “Lost at the last minute.”
Ten years later, I am proudly writing about a historic moment in this school’s history. In May 2015 there were 480 seniors in my high school; in June 2015, 464 students earned their diploma. Only 16 students were lost at the last minute…that’s 3% of the senior class.
As I reread my Ed.D. thesis, it was rewarding to see that the recommendations made 8 years ago were feasible rather than unrealistic. The guidance staff made great strides to communicate senior credit and course needs with all staff using shared files on Google Drive. They also increased face time with seniors and their families through periodic one-on-one conferences, assemblies, evening events and schoolwide activities that focused on the importance of graduation.
A credit recovery lab staffed by a drop out prevention specialists eight periods of the day provides off-track students opportunities to recover missing credits as well as counseling from a trained specialist.
A massive reorganization to redesign the school around three academies engages students through college-like degree programs that emphasize real world experiences. A notable example includes an ROTC honors ground flight class that has students flying planes from a local airport. Ninth graders now enter school by applying to a degree program that follows a course sequence that challenges students to earn 32 total credits, exceeding the state requirement by 8 credits.
A partnership with Dr. Sharon Walpole to bring research-based literacy strategies to classes across all content areas improved instruction. The creation of seminar periods throughout the day provide the most needy students with Tier II (moderate) and Tier III (intensive) interventions designed to strengthen student’s reading comprehension and ability to access complex texts. Ultimately, bolstering student’s ability to successfully complete coursework on time and earn much valued credits.
I believe the success of this 10-year effort was the direct result of our ability to integrate a variety of strategies, across multiple areas of school life and remain determined to achieve a common goal: Reduce the number of students lost at the last minute to zero.
While some may say that zero is unattainable, our staff disagrees. One stakeholder’s recent comments of “What happened to the 3%?” and “What do we do for them next year?” reflects the staff’s commitment and passion to seeing students succeed and demonstrates the belief that our work is not done.
At this point I am struggling to close this blog with a poignant statement about our achievement. Truth told, it boils down to collective hard work, dedication, and passion for seeing high school students succeed.
There is however a greater message — one to politicians and so-called education experts who need to stay out of the way of committed, passionate, and knowledgeable school staff because, despite the prevailing wisdom about high schools, there are many who left to their own devices can make a difference.