In recent years, the overall graduation rate for public school students nationwide has climbed to 83.2 percent—and principals need to build on this momentum. Dig a little deeper into the data, and you’ll find that simply getting seniors out the door with a high school diploma in hand isn’t enough.
Nearly 70 percent of youths ages 16 to 24 who graduated from any high school in 2016 were enrolled in college by the fall of that year. But the numbers have traditionally been much lower for public schools nationwide—39 percent of high school seniors who graduated from public schools in 2011 attended four-year colleges in the fall compared to 64 percent of their private school counterparts, according to a 2016 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. That number was even lower for public schools that had more than three-quarters of their students approved for free and reduced-price lunch (29 percent attended college). This was also true of schools where students of color comprised half or more of the student body (33 percent).
I am the principal at Artesia High School in Lakewood, Calif., where our demographics are similar to other schools in low-income, urban neighborhoods: 15 percent of our students are English-language learners, 76 percent are Hispanic, and 79 percent are from low-income families. Many arrive their freshman year testing well below grade level in language arts and math.
But our school decided not to let ZIP codes, demographics, or socioeconomic status define our students’ success. In the past six years, we’ve taken concrete steps to ensure that all our students are college-ready and have the financial and educational support they need to enter higher education. This fall, an astounding 94 percent of Artesia’s most recent graduating class of 329 students started college—74 percent of them as first-generation students. The others were set to attend trade schools or enlist in the military.
It is easy for school leaders to assume that readying students to attend colleges is the work of teachers and guidance counselors. But principals play a key role in students’ preparation. Improving academic outcomes for our students took the effort of our entire school staff, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Here are five effective strategies for principals that can help students achieve success after high school graduation:
1. Demand excellence.
Most school leaders want to make sure teachers, counselors, and students commit to excellence. That can mean having teachers who are willing to teach summer school to prepare students for upcoming Advanced Placement classes or participate in professional-development programs. But admistrators should give 100 percent as well. They should stay late, find funding to support extracurricular programs for students and professional development for their staff, and have an open-door policy for everyone in the school community throughout the year.
2. Make it personal.
Teachers, counselors, and administrators should encourage all students, even if they are struggling. At our school, we greet students by name and make sure to check in with them regularly. Teachers in all core subject areas regularly offer tutoring before and after school and privately identify a handful of students each quarter who would benefit from extra attention. Administrators and counselors also reach out to students to see how they are doing at home.
Principals play a key role in students' preparation. Improving academic outcomes for our students took the effort of our entire school staff."
3. Change the school culture.
When I began at Artesia in 2011, the school was known for gangs, violence, and little else. To get students to prioritize their education, we started a campaign to redefine “cool.” We created a public-recognition program that celebrates students who are high achieving or who have made improvements in their GPA. We also implemented an intervention program for students who were consistently tardy or absent and rewarded those who had perfect or improved attendance with home visits and Disneyland tickets. Now, instead of skipping class or coming late, students are motivated to show up ready to learn.
4. Create space for support.
Many students are driven to succeed but lack the know-how to apply to college. A designated area in the school building for college preparation can make all the difference. We built a student union within the school that offers students comfortable space for extra academic, career, and college assistance. It’s also a space for regular presentations from colleges and college-application and financial-aid workshops.
5. Follow the data.
To find solutions for academic and behavioral problems, we research approaches that have worked at similar schools before trying them out for ourselves. For example, keeping data walls of test scores and pass rates in all classrooms so that teachers, parents, students, and administrators can see them allows for transparency and lets students track their progress. We also set ambitious improvement targets, such as a 15 percent gain in state test scores.
Of course, five steps aren’t enough to encompass every initiative school leaders can use to transform student success. Schools must continue to strive toward the goal of getting 100 percent of graduating seniors into college. Higher education is still the only institution that provides a clear gateway for students to escape poverty. It is our duty to open that gate for all.
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Principals, Let’s Get Every Senior Into College