Four years ago, you didn’t need graduation data to know that the 2,400-student comprehensive high school in Fall River, Mass., was in trouble. All you needed was one afternoon inside the school.
“You’d walk in the door, and the first thing you’d notice was the smell of cigarette smoke,” says Meg Mayo-Brown, the superintendent of the 10,000-student school district. “Kids were disengaged. They had their heads down on their desks.”
Paul Marshall, now the school’s principal, recalls security guards who’d shoo kids out at closing time and hallways that were always devoid of teachers.
So when the Fall River district launched an effort in the 2006-07 school year to raise graduation rates at B.M.C. Durfee High School, officials looked at the usual sources of information, including attendance rates, dropout data, test scores, failure rates, and year-to-year retention statistics. But the trick, they say, was pairing that information with a close analysis of the norms and policies in the school and an effort to respond to students’ needs and interests.
“There’s no real ‘program’ we put in place,” says Marshall, one of three administrators hired by the district as part of its effort to raise the four-year graduation rate, which has climbed from 54.2 percent for the class of 2006 to 62.5 percent for the class of 2009. “It’s basically been a lot of sweat equity, and really listening to the public and the faculty and students.”
Among the earliest breakthroughs was making sure that all students could simply get to school.
Many of Durfee High School’s disadvantaged students live nearly seven miles away in the south end of Fall River. Because students rely on public buses for transportation, and some families could not afford even the discounted bus fares offered their children, kids would miss school.
Fall River officials used attendance data to confirm what they had observed anecdotally: students emerging from packed cars in the loading zone or trying to catch free rides.
Ultimately, the district managed to cover bus fare for students receiving federally subsidized school meals.
Ensuring that teachers were engaged with students, both in the school halls and through extracurricular activities, also was crucial.
The school reorganized its advising system to make sure all students were on course toward academic or career goals; it replaced a system that focused primarily on transitions into and out of school.
Q One of your strategies to improve the graduation rate was to bring in a team of three new administrators. What was your theory of action behind that decision?
We believed creating a positive, collegial, professional school community, combined with a strong culture grounded in student success, would lead to high expectations for staff and students, and create a personalized approach to student learning and engagement. In addition to their track record of success in a different community, the three new school leaders brought beliefs and values about positive school culture and built collaborative relationships with like-minded staff, parents, and community members to develop and sustain a new vision for the school.
Q You’ve made an effort to tailor graduation strategies to what your high school students say they need. How did you go about obtaining their feedback?
Recognizing “student voice” is a key factor in creating meaningful school experiences. School leaders and staff interact regularly with students and parents in a variety of settings, including home visits. These informal and formal opportunities, whether at a high school basketball game, parent advisory council meeting, student government meeting, or backyard cookout, lead to insights about what works for kids. Most importantly, school leaders and staff develop personal relationships with students. It is through these sustained relationships that “student voice” is fostered and respected, leading to student-centered programming.
Q What changes have you seen in your smaller, alternative high school in the past four years?
Four years ago, our alternative high school housed 50 students and offered a very limited number of courses. Few students graduated, and many teachers and students felt the environment was unsafe. In the past four years, the school was renamed to reflect its mission; additional funding expanded available services; school governance was restructured and included teacher leadership; community partnerships were developed; high expectations were established for staff, students, and parents; and new pathways to graduation were created. Currently, the school enrolls over 300 students with a 35 percent increase in the graduation rate.
Q You plan to continue to look at data in the middle and elementary grades to identify those kids who are at risk of dropping out in high school. Long-term, what strategies do you anticipate putting into place in those grades?
We are focusing our development efforts in three areas: (1) building and supporting student-transition programs for the middle years; (2) developing rigorous, individualized curriculum with career-learning and mentoring opportunities for elementary and middle school students; and (3) expanding early-childhood education to support cognitive, social, and emotional development, as well as parent-support programs.
Administrators and teachers created new extracurricular activities by surveying student interest. They formed a popular hip-hop dance club for girls, for instance, after getting the interested girls to agree to improve their grades.
Simultaneously, the district began overhauling an alternative education program that administrators said had essentially served as a dumping ground for struggling students. That program has since been transformed into the Resiliency Preparatory School and offers expanded avenues to a high school diploma. One program, for example, offers classes meeting from 3 to 7 p.m. to accommodate working students’ schedules.
Parsing the district’s academic data, meanwhile, helped administrators convince parents and the community of the need to raise expectations in core high school classes.
Transcripts showed that students were earning A’s and B’s in their Advanced Placement classes. But their average score on AP exams was just 1.4. The passing score on the exam, which is graded on a 1-to-5 scale, is a 3.
Armed with that information, Fall River secured support from the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston-based nonprofit organization, to help math, science, and English AP teachers raise instructional rigor.
When grades dropped as a result, says Marshall, administrators had some tough conversations with parents.
“We said, ‘Look, the admissions officers [at universities] are not fools; they are going to accuse us of grade inflation.’ It was hard for the community to accept, but it was the truth, and if we didn’t put it out there, it wasn’t going to change.”
Now, the district can point to any number of changes. Participation in a dual-enrollment initiative with a local community college has boomed. Graduating students are exploring options far beyond Fall River; some are attending college as far away as Colorado and Alaska.
Summary statistics for districts serving cities with populations of fewer than 100,000.
• 8% of U.S. student population served
• 68% graduation rate, class of 2007
• 413 districts in small cities
• 7,904 median student enrollment
• 14 median number of schools
• <1 percentage-point improvement in graduation rate, 1997 to 2007
Source: EPE Research Center, 2010
For all of the district’s success, Marshall attributes the improvements to the daily work of Fall River teachers and administrators.
“It wasn’t because the three of us came to the district,” Marshall says of the administrators hired as part of the graduation push. “Three people cannot make change. We had to recruit more like minds and get out into the hallways. You manage by doing, not by looking at papers.”