Transition specialists help boost DeKalb’s graduation rate

A handful of men and women have been placed in DeKalb County high schools for the past two school years where they play any role, from parent to adviser, confidante to best friend.

Their job, district officials say, is a tricky one. As postsecondary transition specialists, the men and woman are tasked with easing the transition from middle to high school, and helping students navigate through classrooms and potential issues at home to make it across the graduation stage in four years. The role is said to be part of why the district’s graduation rate is up 5 percentage points to nearly 63 percent in the past three years.

“We want to identify any needs early,” said Vasanne Tinsley, the director of student support for the DeKalb County School District. “The specialist can be that bridge for those students … who are at risk of not finishing on time.”

The district’s low graduation rate can be attributed to many things, Tinsley said. Some students move a lot and end up in and out of the district several times a year. Some are facing homelessness. A majority of students don’t speak English as their primary language, which could frustrate them as they make their way through school.

Typically, Tinsley said, school counselors would watch a student’s grades during the first semester of his freshman year, then return when the student reached the 11th grade, checking for any missed or failed classes to give the student time to make up for what he or she missed.

“We have to do things differently because our students are different,” Tinsley said.

The use of postsecondary transition specialists was the idea of then-Superintendent Michael Thurmond. Tinsley said he wanted to see whether a different approach would have a more substantial impact on students.

New Superintendent Steve Green said the specialist program is important because it helps students achieve a goal of graduation, which is at the heart of what the school district was created to do.

“We offer a rigorous protocol that begins with working with students as they make the transition from middle school to high school,” Green said. “This is a team approach that requires active participation from the school and the student with her or his family.”

The district currently employs eight specialists, housed in different schools with some traveling between schools based on need. Kevin Ware said he is in contact with more than 150 students — with varying amounts of time — who attend McNair High School, which has had troubles with its graduation rate.

Ware said he was working with Communities in Schools in a similar role dealing with at-risk freshmen before signing on with the district.

“The expectations were to make an impact on increasing the graduation rate by implementing different programs,” said Ware, 44, of Decatur. “We were told every school was different, so we had to get in and assess the needs of the school and cater the program to the needs.”

He often sees the effects of the high transient rate, where students reappear several times during the semester from other districts they had been transferred to after moving. A lack of parent involvement also hinders many students, he said.

“We work on engaging the parents and having them understand they’re going to play a major role in their child’s education,” Ware said.

It’s not always about the grades, either.

Thursday afternoon, specialist Shani Hall had an update session with a mentee, 15-year-old Jemini Trollinger, about classes and other outside-of-school factors that could have an impact on her success. Jemini said the additional support goes a long way for her.

“It’s great to have somebody I can relate to,” she said, “and who can guide me in the right direction even when I fall off.”

Hall, who rotates between several schools, said it’s just as important to deal with students like Jemini because often it’s more than grades that keep students from graduating on time, or at all.

“Sometimes it’s an outerlying situation that prevents them from doing well in school, whether it’s in the home or just needing some additional support,” said Hall, 40, of Gwinnett County.

While Ware said several of the students are slow to latch onto the program’s ideologies — he calls them “works in progress” — several bright spots have proved encouraging. He brought up a student who dealt with a rigorous course load as she took additional classes to make up for those she had missed.

“One of her main issues was her attendance,” he said. “She would just miss … 20, 30 days. When I met with her, she said, ‘I want to graduate.’ It was a constant check-in with her just to see where her head was. She was overwhelmed for most of the school year, but I kept checking in with her.

“It came down to the wire, but she graduated with her class.”

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