Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Rural District Hires Graduation Coaches

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 03, 2010 3 min read
Matthew Hunter, 22, dropped out of West-Oak Senior High School after being injured in a car accident. He calls school “boring” and says he’s unlikely to go back. This school year, West-Oak hired a graduation coach to work with at-risk students and educate them on the importance of earning a high school diploma.
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Kevin R. Burnette used to be a math teacher, but today his job is to encourage high school seniors at risk of dropping out to stick with school until they graduate. Using attendance data and standardized-test scores to identify the West-Oak Senior High School students who need extra support, Burnette is reaching out to students to find ways to help them pass their classes and earn a diploma.

West-Oak High is located in Oconee County, a rural area in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the northwest corner of South Carolina. This school year, the 10,400-student Oconee County school district chose to use federal economic-stimulus money to pay for “adequate-yearly-progress coaches,” or graduation coaches, at the secondary school level.

Burnette is the graduation coach for West-Oak High, which has the lowest graduation rate of the four high schools in the county. In 2009, the school reported a graduation rate to the state of 71.5 percent. The rate reflects the percentage of 9th graders in a school who earn a regular high school diploma and graduate in four years or less. It also includes students who enrolled in 9th grade for the first time elsewhere and transferred to that school.

In 2008, the rate at West-Oak was 71.2 percent, and in 2007, it was 76.5 percent. Students who have special needs and earn a certificate instead of a regular diploma and those who leave school to pursue a General Educational Development credential are counted against the school’s graduation rate.

West-Oak’s principal, Scott M. Smith, says he believes having a graduation coach has helped. He expects, in fact, that the graduation rate will climb at least several percentage points higher this school year than last, which he characterizes as “a great move forward for us, but still not where we want to be.” He was expecting to give out 231 diplomas on graduation day, June 5, up from 163 last school year.

Q&A: Kevin R. BurnetteGraduation Coach, West-Oak Senior High School

Q What are some of the kinds of data you used to identify seniors in the beginning of the year who were at risk of dropping out of school?

We checked to see what students were retaking classes that they needed for graduation, attendance records, and HSAP [South Carolina High School Assessment Program] scores to see what students had not yet passed at least one part of the test.

Q In what ways did you have an influence in convincing some of those seniors to stay in school so they could graduate?

I tried to help them see that they weren’t too far gone to graduate. Some of our students were behind two or three classes, and they felt overwhelmed with the amount of work they had to do. I reassured them that, with some hard work and with the help of their teachers, they could in fact get it done and get their diplomas. The second thing I talked to them about that I feel had an impact was making sure they had options. I tried to help them understand that a diploma gives them options that they wouldn’t have without one.

Q What are the main reasons some seniors dropped out this school year, even when you gave them special encouragement to stick it out?

I found that there were a variety of reasons that students dropped out this year. Some already had job opportunities lined up with family members, and they didn’t feel like having a diploma mattered for them. Some students had gotten into a position where they were very far behind, and they felt overwhelmed by the amount of work that they would have to do to catch up and just didn’t want to do it.

Q What are your plans for next school year to continue to use data to identify and monitor students at risk of dropping out?

I’d like to begin working more with our 9th grade students to help them understand how important a high school diploma is. I would also like to implement a new system for identifying at-risk students that our dropout-prevention team helped develop. It assigns points to students for different categories, like not having passed the exit exam, previous behavior problems, excessive absences, being behind in coursework, et cetera. Students with higher point totals would then be considered more at risk for dropping out.

— Mary Ann Zehr

His school enrolls about 1,000 students, almost all of whom are white, and many of whom are from low-income families.

At the start of the school year, Burnette identified 76 seniors out of the 246 who started the year as being at risk of not finishing high school. Students were assigned to the list because of their previous poor attendance or having retaken or failed classes. Also on the list, Burnette says, were seniors who hadn’t passed at least one part of the state’s high school exit exam.

He says he encounters students who have “a narrow view of the world”; they haven’t had much exposure to the possibilities for jobs outside of Westminster, where the school is located, or the surrounding region.

To broaden their horizons, Burnette makes a point of meeting one-on-one with each of the seniors he’s identified to talk about their prospects. He says some students want to go to college, but don’t know the steps to take to make that happen. A good many, he says, want to get a job as soon as possible, in work such as construction or plumbing.

“I stressed to them that getting a high school diploma opens up the options,” Burnette says. “Working for your dad in construction sounds good now, but five years down the road, you might like to do something else.”

Burnette says he talked only once to some of the students, and they carried through with what they needed to do to get on track. He formed an ongoing relationship with about half the 76 students and met with them throughout the school year. He estimates that he may have helped about 20 to change their minds about leaving school.

Still, 11 seniors have dropped out, Burnette says, including two whom he and the school police officer visited in their homes after they stopped coming to school. The two, who were at least 17 and old enough to decide legally to quit school, couldn’t be persuaded to return.

Rural Profile

Summary statistics for districts serving rural areas.

19% of U.S. student population served
72% graduation rate, class of 2007
8,059 districts in rural areas
536 median student enrollment
2 median number of schools
3 percentage-point improvement in graduation rate, 1997 to 2007

Source: EPE Research Center, 2010

Burnette says his goal for next school year is to start working with the freshman class. “I feel if we can get them through the first year [of high school],” he explains, “they will be less likely to drop out.”

Smith, the principal, says Oconee County is working to identify struggling students by using data starting as early as middle school. When they enroll at West-Oak High, some young people are assigned to an extra math or English block intended to support them in passing 9th grade English or Algebra 1.

“We used to wait until students were not successful on their South Carolina exit exams before we tried to provide any assistance,” Smith says. That has changed, he adds.

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