I have the tremendous honor and privilege of serving as the principal and IB head of school at Marietta High School (MHS), located in metro Atlanta, GA. When I was hired in 2018, I was the fourth principal in five years. MHS received a “C” on the state report card, and the graduation rate was below the state average, behind schools with similar demographics and enrollment. At the same time, I was tasked with building a new alternative school program on our satellite campus and transitioning our entire school to a College and Career Academy, including overseeing the construction and renovation of 66,000 square feet on our main campus. Herculean? Just a bit. I am so thankful for the many hands and hearts at my school, in our district, and around our city who helped us raise the graduation rate to 83.68%, an all-time high in 2020, and again—even higher—to 86.7% in 2021. In 2019, with a lot of hard work, we chiseled our way through the glass ceiling to earn a “B” on the state report card. 

What Is a College and Career Academy?

The concept of College and Career Academy is a function of Georgia’s Charter District option. The school board and the superintendent made the decision to pursue this model before I was hired. My responsibility was to build on the academic and career courses, hire the personnel, and outfit each lab with the best equipment that reflected industry and business. At MHS, we chose to build the infrastructure to house all 21-career pathways on our main campus instead of building a separate, off-site campus. Doing so provided equity and access to all of our students, even those in the IB programmes. In order to upgrade existing pathways and add new course offerings, we built a 50,000-square-foot addition and renovated 16,000 square feet of the existing campus. 

No matter where you are on our beautiful campus, you walk by or through a career pathway. Cyber Security is in a classroom next to our ACT/SAT preparation course. English and math courses share a hallway with the culinary arts course; the audio, video, television, and film course shares a hallway with science. That is what it means to be a true wall-to-wall College and Career Academy. At MHS, every student is prepared to learn, earn, and serve as a productive citizen while they are our students and long after they leave the halls of MHS. 

On a Mission 

The city of Marietta first established a school system in 1892. Since then, the city and the needs of its students have changed as the population has grown. However, the will and support of the community to serve the whole child has remained constant since the inception of the school system. This focus is a byproduct of working in one of the most generous cities in our country. When I arrived in 2018, my team and our school community worked together to author school statements on our mission, values, and commitments so that we could operate at the highest level and serve a diverse population in which over 50% of our students receive free and reduced-price meals. 

We decided that Marietta High School’s mission is “to foster creativity and critical thinking to develop compassionate citizens and lifelong learners in a diverse world.”

Our work is informed and driven by our values:

  • Respect
  • Growth
  • Integrity
  • Achievement
  • Encouragement

We also adhere to the following educator commitments. As a member of the MHS faculty, I commit to:

  • Embracing our community’s diversity to enhance the educational environment
  • Approaching my subject with enthusiasm
  • Caring for my students and pushing them to their full potential
  • Modeling respect, compassion, integrity, and responsibility
  • Developing students’ skills through the use of content
  • Helping students become confident self-advocates
  • Creating a positive classroom culture, which inspires critical and creative thinkers
  • Holding high expectations for my students, my colleagues, and myself
  • Improving teaching and learning through collaboration
  • Celebrating growth and achievement

By design, our values and commitments are not numbered, as they are all equal and interrelated. We believe that all of them must be part of our DNA if we are going to serve all our students. 

Our mission, values, and commitments highlight three principles that guide our work, hold us accountable, and breathe life into what we do every day. The first principle, student-driven, means everything we do is in the spirit of what is best for our children. It also reminds us that there is a heartbeat behind every number. The second principle, data-informed, reminds us to use numbers and trends to see how we are doing and make real-time adjustments to better serve our students. The third principle, future friendly, reminds us to thoroughly examine what we are currently doing every day so that we can help our students become productive citizens in a diverse world. 

We believe that every student attending MHS—and after they graduate—is prepared to learn, earn, and serve. This means that the same emphasis on learning content and skills, preparing for a future career, and understanding the importance of service to the community extends throughout our traditional academic courses and our career and technical education program. For decades, the emphasis varied depending on which “track” (academic or vocational) a student was assigned. Full disclosure: offering 21 career pathways, 11 AP courses, and all three IB programmes (Middle Years Programme, Career-related Programme, and Diploma Programme) to 2,600 students is exceptionally complex. 

Our young people are absolutely worth the effort. We have students who earn a full IB diploma, who are also enrolled in our Air Force JROTC program, who letter in a varsity sport, and who qualify for a state Fine Arts Diploma Seal. We don’t have students locking strictly into a career or college or service track at MHS because we encourage them to develop a range of interests and passions. After all, how many times does a student change their major in college? How many times will an adult change their career? If high school is going to prepare our students to learn, earn, and serve over a lifetime, schooling must act as a catalyst for self-awareness and provide safe places to grow and explore. 

48 out of 52 Weeks a Year 

I admit that we could not accomplish all our work during the traditional school year. Our school performance data, including years of graduation rates below the state average, clearly showed that 178 school days during traditional school hours simply did not enable all students to graduate with a high school diploma. Knowing that, we built 48 weeks of academic programming and services (250 school days) to meet the needs of our community and increase the graduation rate. Simply adding days to the academic calendar would not be enough, so we also did the following:

  • We got the support of the superintendent and school board to build successful programs and pay high-quality staff. 
  • We paid extra salaries to staff who had proven they were effective at supporting students and building relationships with them. 
  • We maximized our existing virtual learning platform so that students and teachers did not need to learn another new program. 
  • We used every break, except for winter break, for targeted tutoring and credit recovery called “intercession.” 
  • We offered free after-school tutoring four days a week that included a snack and a bus ride home.
  • We included Saturday school throughout the school year to provide tutoring and credit recovery. 
  • We expanded summer school from four to six weeks. 
  • We offered a rising ninth-grade summer school program called EXCELerate Academy to “at-potential” students to earn credit in math and personal fitness. Our teachers, in our school building, taught this unique program so we could establish relationships before these students officially started their first day at MHS. 
  • We established Marietta Evening School Hours (MESH) to address the “labor or learning” challenge facing our students.
  • We developed Operation Graduation by working with each feeder school and the community to develop relationships and welcome students to our school district as early as the preschool years. This approach included visiting every preschool classroom and fifth-grade classroom, as well as meaningfully on-boarding rising ninth graders throughout their eighth-grade year. 

Labor Over Learning

The need for our students to hold paying jobs was a major obstacle to on-time graduation that was present for years but accelerated during the pandemic. MHS had a significant number of students who did not attend school for months—or even years—because they had to work to support themselves or their family. After extensive conversations with students, the need to work and/or take care of a family member was the main reason they could not attend school during the day. Therefore, our solution was building a night school program. 

In February 2021, we launched MESH. We hired our most effective daytime teachers and offered students a path to graduation that gave them the ability to simultaneously earn a living or take care of a family member. Students in the program are provided a meal each night and transportation if needed. This year I hired back a beloved counselor part-time to provide social and emotional support to complement the outstanding academic work our teachers provide. 

Our Journey Continues

By no means do I think we have arrived, nor can we take our foot off the gas pedal until we see 100% of our students graduate. However, I do believe, with my whole heart, that if you pair amazing educators, counselors, administrators, and support staff with well-designed programs that intentionally target obstacles to access, equity, and opportunity, students will finish what they started and walk across the graduation stage. Schools also need a superintendent and school board that empower the principal and staff to meet challenges with the necessary support and resources. At MHS, we have been able to thrive because we have each of these key ingredients, and we plan to keep moving forward so all our students can succeed.

Keith L. Ball is the principal and IB head of school at Marietta High School in Marietta, GA. He is also the 2021 Georgia Principal of the Year and a 2022 NASSP National Principal of the Year finalist.