The magic number? Eighty-three percent.

That’s not an average test score. That’s the 2018 graduation rate at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. Why is that number significant? Because the projected graduation numbers for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) are as low as 42 percent at some high schools. That graduation rate is especially significant in a school year that featured various scandals—including a school where the principal was removed due to graduation inaccuracies, and here at Dunbar, where the principal was placed on administrative leave midyear due to attendance inaccuracies.

Seniors persevered at Dunbar, and they were able to increase our graduation rate from 76 percent to 86 percent—the highest for Dunbar in the past six years and second highest for a comprehensive high school in D.C.

Overcoming the Obstacles

In February 2018, Dunbar’s principal was placed on administrative leave as the district began to investigate graduation and attendance discrepancies at high schools across the district. This left our school at a loss. We were already down a school counselor, and that left us down an administrator as well. The easy thing would’ve been to quit and point fingers. However, it was my mission, in spite of the adversity and national media looking for ways to downplay the hard work of DCPS students, to graduate as many students as possible. I wanted to give our students a chance to make a decent living, to have a career, or to attend college.

In order to ensure that our seniors were adequately prepared for their June graduation, I attended the district’s Graduation Excellence forums. The purpose of these meetings was to assist schools in determining which students were eligible for graduation and promotion based on student attendance; how to accurately secure student community service hours; and how to address families when it came to student attendance, since an investigation would reveal that truancy was a district-wide issue—not only in pockets of high schools.

What We Did to Overcome Adversity

In a district that has historically graduated fewer students than the national average, the work to get students to school and graduated was a challenge. The work started with the 2018 senior class in August 2016. That was my first year as an assistant principal in Washington, D.C. I was tasked with working with the junior class and assuring that they were college and career ready. The process began early and meant ensuring that students increase SAT participation rates, increase SAT scores, and visit more colleges than the previous school year.

We began college visits early in the school year with the help of the dean of students and our school resource coordinator. Interested students signed up with me and had to write an essay detailing the reasons why that particular college would be essential for their majors. In total, we were able to take the junior class on five college visits and attend three college fairs in the local District of Columbia area. College and career exposure was essential for students in order for them to begin thinking about the fast-approaching senior year.

As the students’ senior year began, I was told we would not have a school counselor dedicated to the senior class. As discouraging as this was, I was up to the challenge. The toughest task was meeting with each senior to ensure that they were scheduled and on task for their June 2018 graduation. Each week, I would meet with teachers about any students who were off their graduation track. Additionally each week, as the district began to crack down on student attendance, I had to run a grade-level attendance report on students who were fast approaching the cutoff for absences. Phone calls and home visits needed to take place if students were not attending school.

As the school year progressed, the work became tougher. Our school principal was placed on administrative leave. This left Dunbar with an interim principal. We held a community meeting in which I addressed the seniors and assured them that we would continue the hard work at Dunbar together so they could graduate. Admittedly, the Dunbar senior class was up against the odds. Not only was their school principal on leave, but there was a sense of disbelief in the media. After a flurry of district meetings and updates to existing policies, the media questioned the validity of high school diplomas in our district. Despite the reports and discrepancies, the seniors at Dunbar High School were able to overcome all that and achieve an 83 percent graduation rate in 2018.

Analyzing the Results

In spite of all that took place in the 2017–18 school year, the class of 2018 was still able to gather up $2 million in scholarship money—an increase from $1.5 million the previous year. Additionally, the class of 2018 increased their SAT participation, increased their SAT scores, and increased their college acceptance percentage and FAFSA applications. Their success was due to many factors. Specifically, we:

  • Looped a group of students by grade level. Being able to work with a grade level of students worked wonders, as I was able to loop up with them from junior to senior year. This allowed me to gain trust and build relationships with students and parents.
  • Increased communication with students. Communication with students and families was essential. I used the Remind app, an internet tool used to reach parents and students. I was able to send senior updates such as grade updates, college visit reminders, college application updates, and senior notes via this app.
  • Used school personnel and got creative. Although many schools are underresourced, this could not be an excuse. I was able to encourage school personnel to assist me with the task of graduating students. I set up a student support team to meet weekly; this team followed off-track students and targeted the students who were most in need.
  • Gave students something to believe in. In a nutshell, we became invested in our students. This included attending activities that students participate in: track meets, basketball and football games, and even dance competitions. It meant making the most out of the time we had with students. We engaged them at community meetings, showed motivating video clips, posted positive quotes in the hallways of schools, and walked through classrooms each morning and greeted each student. Once the students at Dunbar saw that I believed in them, they believed in themselves. In spite of all of the controversy that surrounded them during their senior year, they were able to overcome the odds.

Marc Gomes is assistant principal at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.