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College & Workforce Readiness

Nashville Offers Options for At-Risk Students

By Dakarai I. Aarons — June 03, 2010 3 min read
Elizabeth Powell works on a project at the Academy at Opry Mills. The school offers flexible schedules to help students with family and work pressures.

School leaders in Nashville, Tenn., quickly saw a pattern when they began reviewing data on students who dropped out of school there.

Many were English-language learners or young parents, or were being raised by single parents, and most were working full or part time to help make ends meet.

Jesse Register, the superintendent of the 76,000-student Metropolitan Nashville school district, says administrators realized they needed new and different systems in place to make sure more of those students graduated.

In 2008, Nashville’s graduation rate was 72.6 percent, and Register says that’s not high enough. (Graduation data from 2008 were the most recent available from the Tennessee Department of Education.)

One solution: nontraditional high schools.

The Academy at Old Cockrill and the Academy at Opry Mills are high schools that meet on modified schedules to help students who need more flexibility to complete their studies and earn their diplomas. The schools opened last fall and graduated their first group of students in December 2009. Another group graduated last month.

“What we’ve done is try to create flexible, alternative structures,” Register says. “They are very centered on those young people who have great family demands that prevent them from attending a regular school schedule.”

The principals actively recruit students for the schools; many of the students dropped out during senior year or the second semester of junior year and are between the ages of 17 and 21.

Classes are offered four hours a day, five days a week, and students can earn two academic credits every nine weeks if they attend morning and afternoon sessions at the schools.

Q&A: Jesse RegisterSuperintendent, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools

Q The district is paying close attention to the transition between middle school and high school. How are you supporting incoming 9th graders?

[The Metropolitan Nashville public schools] will begin a new summer extended-learning program for students at risk of falling behind or dropping out. Identified students will be invited to enroll in extended-learning courses throughout the summer. The goal is to provide ongoing support to students and provide additional support to those who may need it prior to 9th grade.

During the 2008-09 school year, MNPS began a new course called Freshman Seminar. The course is designed to help first-time 9th graders adjust to high school, set long-term goals, and establish steps to reach those goals, explore various careers and postsecondary educational opportunities, and even learn about various clubs and programs offered at the school.

Q How do the Academies at Old Cockrill and Opry Mills fit in the district’s mission to boost the city’s graduation rate?

The Academies at Old Cockrill and Opry Mills are unique settings for students who have either dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. These schools target students who have family and employment responsibilities, as well as those who do not thrive in a traditional high school setting. They offer the same rigorous curriculum, with more flexibility and independence to accommodate difficult schedules. The goal is simple: We want every child in Nashville to have access to the education he or she deserves. We realize that some of our youth have difficult personal circumstances. The Academies at Old Cockrill and Opry Mills allow us an opportunity to reach out to those young people and give them the education they need and deserve. By earning a high school diploma, these students will be much more successful in life and be productive contributors to our local and national economy.

Q How are teachers and principals able to tap into the value-added and other data you have to improve outcomes for students?

Our district is well into development and implementation of a data warehouse that will allow teachers and principals to view information on a district level, school level, class level, and individual student level. A student’s performance on district and state assessments, attendance record, and many other pieces of information will be available to staff through this warehouse. With this information, our schools will be able to quickly identify students who are falling behind and develop appropriate interventions. We will be able to use value-added data to predict the future academic success of a student and provide whatever help is needed early on to ensure the student has the best opportunity for success.

—Dakarai I. Aarons

“I have the best job in town,” says Elaine Fahrner, the principal of the Academy at Old Cockrill. “When you can create hopes and dreams for people, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Fahrner says the school’s small size allows her to interact with students on an individual basis and help them work around job schedules and transportation issues, and use a combination of both classroom and Web-based coursework to graduate. She recruited many of the students herself, going to local high schools and spending time talking to newspapers and television stations about the new school.

“We add that personal touch. I know everybody’s name and their business,” Fahrner says.

Space for the Opry Mills location was donated by the Indianapolis-based Simon Youth Foundation, which has opened 25 such centers in 12 states in partnership with school districts.

The Simon Property Group Inc. owns the Opry Mills shopping mall, where the Opry Mills high school is located; having classes in the mall allows students to work and study in the same location.

Another piece of the district’s strategy to improve graduation rates is a focus on 9th grade—a critical year for many students who are at risk of dropping out.

The district has launched 9th grade academies in all of its high schools, organizing teachers into teams to make sure students are part of a community where they feel connected to one another and their teachers.

“We think focusing very carefully on what students experience in the 9th grade year is effective,” Register says. “The teaming is important. Establishing relationships between teachers and students is important.”

Working with a collective that includes universities, the Nashville district is applying for funding under the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant competition to help build a strong early-warning system on dropout prevention. The plan aims to help Nashville capitalize on a wealth of data available from the state’s longitudinal-data system, which includes value-added-assessment information.

Big-City Profile

Summary statistics for districts serving cities with populations greater than 250,000.

16% of U.S. student population served
55% graduation rate, class of 2007
177 districts in the largest cities
17,715 median student enrollment
22 median number of schools
4 percentage-point improvement in graduation rate, 1997 to 2007

Source: EPE Research Center, 2010

“We need to really look at upper-elementary and middle schools and identify those characteristics that are very closely related to dropouts at the high school level,” Register says.

But, the superintendent adds, the difficult part is following through.

“Our weakness is in doing something about those issues—changing those problems so the indicators don’t become true,” he says. “How do we identify those younger students and flag them as high-risk, and then do something about it?”

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