Let’s be honest. In today’s time, education is all about numbers—state tests, national tests, school report cards—the list goes on and on. One number that I always strive to see increase is our graduation rate. Yes, an increasing graduation rate looks good on paper, but more than that is the intrinsic motivation I have when a student who has faced many obstacles receives a diploma.

When I became the South Effingham High School Instructional Supervisor, my first order of business was to look at dropout data from previous years. Two main trends continually showed up throughout the dropout data mining process: transient male students and “at home” students who struggled academically since elementary school. Now, I know that this is in no way shocking to anyone, but it hurt my heart to see name after name on this dropout list. This is when I knew something had to be done. Our community is a suburb of Savannah, GA, so I knew that there were many job opportunities for our students, but for those big corporations that were always hiring our students, they had one main requirement: a high school diploma. So, I set out on a mission to help improve our graduation rate—not for accolades—but to provide a variety of opportunities for every single student.

Here are three specific strategies we used to target our at-risk population:

  1. Alternate Educational Placement: A four-year high school graduation plan is not for all students; therefore, alternate routes to a diploma are a necessity. We found two alternatives that worked for our students:
    1. Crossroads Academy: For students who were extremely credit deficient, they were placed on a credit recovery program that could be done at school and at home. These students would report four days a week to Crossroads Academy, an off-campus alternate education placement center that has smaller numbers and offers more individualized education plans. Once students completed their coursework, they could receive their diploma and move to the next stage in their life. One flaw in this program was that students were not receiving any direction on employability skills; therefore, we tweaked the program to allow students to be bused to the county’s career academy to learn employability skills in logistics.
    2. Senior Fast Track: For seniors who were on track for graduation but decided to drop out their senior year, we offered this option. Students would come to the high school for four hours each day (morning and afternoon sessions) to work on a credit recovery program, which could also be done at home. Usually, these students had three to five classes to complete graduate requirements. Once students completed the required coursework, they received their diplomas.
  2. Teachers as Mentors: In our “Teachers as Advisors” program, I strategically selected several teachers to be my “+2 advisors.” I called them this because I knew it would take a little extra effort and time for these teachers to mentor students who would be placed with them. These teachers were assigned students who failed more than two courses for the previous year, those who had academic struggles since elementary school, and those who moved to the school and were credit deficient. These teachers put a lot of hard work toward building a rapport with these students, checking on these students (academics, behavior, attendance, and non-school related events/issues), and offering advice and extra support when needed.
  3. Mustang Mentors: To target “at home” students who struggled academically, we created this program in which SEHS seniors mentored feeder middle and elementary school students. We also extended this opportunity to students who struggled with behavior, social acceptance, emotional instability, and adversity at home. SEHS seniors were extensively trained before being placed with their protégés.

Throughout much data mining, energy, effort, time, and planning, these three strategies have shown success. Our graduation rate increased substantially in the past ten years, which is awesome news, but the best news is knowing that students received a high school diploma who would have never received one if not for these programs. There’s no greater joy than giving a diploma to a student who is the first person in their family to graduate.

What processes are in place to make sure each student has a graduation plan and that the plan is being implemented? What safety nets are in place for students who are not successful with a traditional graduation plan?

Tammy Jacobs began her career as math teacher at South Effingham High School, and she moved into the assistant principal role 11 years ago at the same school. In October 2018, she became the principal of Ebenezer Middle School. She is married to Bryan Jacobs, and they have twin boys that are three years old. She is the 2018 Georgia Assistant Principal of the Year.

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