Metro schools boost graduation rates with online tools, tutors, nudges

High school senior Carlyn Woodson watched helplessly as his best friend went to prison on robbery charges almost a year ago. On the verge of dropping out like his friend, Woodson knew he had to turn around his failing grades or he could end up following the same path.

So the 18-year-old decided to hit the books hard, spending hours after school and during lunch breaks studying, getting tutored and taking online courses to bring up his failing grades.

“I’m very excited I have the chance now to walk with my class” on graduation day, Woodson said. “It almost didn’t happen.”

Woodson is one of several students who made dramatic turnarounds at Riverdale High School in Clayton County. It’s among the 10 metro Atlanta high schools that have made the biggest jumps in graduation rates in recent years. The school went from a 43 percent rate in 2012 to 66 percent in 2014 – about 5 percentage points shy of the state rate.

As graduation approaches, many lower-performing schools like Riverdale are racing against the odds, and have a new worry: winding up in Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed special school district for failing schools. Riverdale’s principal says she’s trying to avoid that at all costs.

“I’m bothered by it because it’s not a reflection of the gains we’ve made,” said Jamille Miller-Brown, Riverdale’s principal. “As the data shows, we’re making gains. We want to continue to focus on our successes … we’re headed in the right direction.”

Georgia’s state graduation rate has risen 5.1 percentage points between 2011 and 2014 and is now 2.5 percent, according to the Georgia Department of Education. But it ranks among the lowest compared to other states — lagging the national rate, which has reached 81 percent, based on 2013 federal data, the most recent available.

Gains in the graduation rate haven’t been equal among all student groups, though. Notably, seven states – Michigan, New York, Ohio, Georgia, Florida, California and Illinois – educate about 40 percent of the nation’s black students, according to an annual Grad Nation report produced in part by America’s Promise Alliance organization. All of these states either have graduation rates in the 60s for black students or have recently experienced significant declines.

“Unless these states start to experience significant improvements, the recent progress made in raising African-American graduation rates will stall,” according to the report.

Georgia education leaders want to get the rates up, but note the state has some of the strictest requirements for graduation in the country, so its rate typically doesn’t look good compared to the nation’s.

A high school diploma increases students’ chances of succeeding in a career and provides the state with an educated populace to fill job demands. To buoy the rate, the state recently started its “Career Pathways” initiative, which gets students to commit to a career interest during high school.

In addition, Deal has proposed a special statewide district to take over failing schools. In 2016, voters will be asked to approve a change to the Georgia constitution to give the state authority to set that up. Schools deemed “failing” would be put in the special district, which could then remove principals, transfer teachers, change what students learn and control school budgets. Deal’s office estimates about 140 schools would be eligible for takeover, including more than 60 in metro Atlanta.

A low graduation rate is among the factors that could define a “failing” school. Riverdale’s principal says the school has been tagged as one that could be placed in the special district. But she says with graduation and test scores improving, she hopes to keep Riverdale out of it.

Since Miller-Brown became principal nearly three years ago, the school has increased focus on online and tutoring opportunities for struggling students. Riverdale also beefed up its record-keeping to better track students who have missed several days of school. When they do see a student teetering on the edge of failure, Miller-Brown and other school leaders have intervened to get them back on track.

When senior Ontarion Williams, 19, began to struggle with several subjects almost a year ago, Miller-Brown called his mother during dinner one evening and urged Williams to get help to boost his grades.

“She said, ‘He’s not making progress,’ ” Williams said. “You ain’t signed up for virtual (learning) or nothing. She said what are you doing? Do you want to graduate or not?”

Heartened by Miller-Brown’s phone call and encouragement, Williams took advantage of the school’s virtual learning to get his grades up. Now, he can walk on stage to get his diploma with the rest of his class.

“There were so many people trying to help me do something,” Williams said. “I was so down on myself. On top of them pushing me were my classmates. My peers, counselor … everybody played a part.”

Like Riverdale, other high schools that have seen significant jumps in their graduation rates have also beefed up online learning and record-keeping. Going the extra mile and reaching out to parents when students are on the verge of failing has also helped.

At Lanier High School in Gwinnett, the graduation rate went from 62.4 percent to 82 percent between 2011-14. Besides better online learning opportunities, the school has increasingly used assessments and other data to determine which students need the most help.

Lanier principal Reuben Gresham said he often visits the homes of struggling students on weekends in an effort to help pull them up. It can be a turning point for many of them — letting students know they’re not falling through the cracks, that someone is noticing them. That someone cares, Gresham said.

“I’ll say, ‘Hey I’m looking at your reports right here, and you didn’t go to tutoring this week,’ ” Gresham said. “So here’s what we’re going to do. You’re not going to lunch this week. We’re going to feed you, but you’re not getting an hour lunch. And you won’t get an hour lunch until you’re passing your class.

“Our ultimate goal is for our students to be productive citizens. Whether they go to college or not” he added. “We believe in no-excuse student achievement. If we can change a student’s mindset toward success, achievement gaps will close.”

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