SCHENECTADY In an indication that Schenectady High School’s restructuring is working, the graduation rate this June was seven percentage points higher than last year.
The rate was also better than last year’s overall rate, including August graduations. In all, 58.9 percent of students who started at the high school four years ago graduated.
Now, teachers are hoping to finally break into the 60s with the August graduates. If two-thirds of the seniors in summer school manage to pass their Regents exams next month, Schenectady will have a 65 percent graduation rate.
That’s a huge change. Increasing the rate by that much in one year is rare.
The class of 2014 will be the first to have experienced all of the restructuring, particularly the Ninth Grade Academy, but the class of 2013 spent much more time in the classroom than earlier classes. When the 2013 graduates were sophomores, the district rolled out its new attendance deans, who track down truant students and get them to school.
For many of the sophomores, that meant an end to a long lunch period spent with friends. The deans quickly learned many missing students were hanging out in the cafeteria to connect with friends who had a different lunch period.
As the class of 2013 continued on, the “kids in seats” philosophy was refined further. In their senior year, the high school schedule was changed to add 18 additional hours of instruction time in each class. That’s essentially the same as adding four more weeks to the school year, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
School officials also took a hard look at the other big reason for students missing school: suspension. Instead of out-of-school suspensions, Principal Diane Wilkinson assigned many students to community service and in-school suspension this year.
Some still had to be suspended, but the change in discipline kept students in school for 550 more days, she said.
“It’s important for kids to be in class, getting the instruction they need,” she said.
The class of 2013 also benefitted for three years from the change in instruction that began with the Ninth Grade Academy. Teachers organized into teams to discuss their students and devise plans for reaching even the most difficult teen. They worked together on curriculum and helped each other resolve problems.
“We’ve also really worked on our relationships with kids,” Wilkinson said.
This year, teachers began reaching out socially to students on the brink of failure. They invited them to lunch and sought them out to chat.
“It gets back to that concept that teachers really care,” Wilkinson said. “We need to make sure our kids really feel that.”
Spring also brought his own philosophy to the district for the class of 2013’s senior year. He set up spreadsheets to watch every student so teachers, guidance counselors and administrators could intervene when students veered toward failure.
The goal was to make sure no student fell through the cracks.
He met with Wilkinson every other week to go over the class of 2013. They tracked attendance, discipline and grades. Counselors audited every senior’s records to note what the seniors needed to accomplish to graduate on time.
“If they have a graduation-dependant exam coming up in June, are we giving it our all with the intensive push?” Spring asked.
He told every teacher, administrator and support staff the district’s goal was to graduate 500 seniors. That’s a 65 percent graduation rate.
But he didn’t just tell them the overall number; he told them exactly which students were in danger of being held back.
“You get to 500 by ensuring this kid gets there,” Spring said. “How are we problem-solving this kid? That’s the cornerstone of my school improvement philosophy.”
Wilkinson took that message to the principal for the class of 2013. They went over every student at risk and put together individual plans.
Their spreadsheet showed red squares for each graduation requirement each student had yet to meet. As January exam results came in, square after square turned green.
Teachers loved the idea. There was “constant traffic” into Wilkinson’s office to see the spreadsheet, she said. As June exam results came in, teachers watched impatiently to see how every single student in their classes did.
One biology teacher had every student pass.
“She was ecstatic, hugging everyone around,” Wilkinson said.
Of the students in summer school, there are 76 seniors who could graduate. But if just 52 finish their requirements, the district will hit a 65 percent graduation rate.
While teachers are pushing those students forward, administrators are also working with the rest of the class — the ones who didn’t graduate on time.
Four years ago, the freshman class had 760 members. Of that group, 448 students graduated in June. Even if all 76 summer school seniors also graduate, that leaves 236 students behind.
Some are still struggling through their final years of high school. Others dropped out — but not as many as in years past. The dropout rate slowed significantly this year.
There was a 27 percent reduction in dropouts, with only 56 teens giving up on school by the end of the school year. Last year, 122 teens dropped out.
And some of those dropouts have come back. School officials seek them out and urge them to come back.
Spring wants all of them to re-enroll. They can do so at any time until they turn 21.
Spring tells students a high school diploma is better than a GED — although a GED is better than nothing, he admitted.
“On balance, having a high school diploma does more for you economically than a GED,” he said. “If you have dropped out and start to think, ‘Maybe I want that high school diploma,’ come on back. We want to help you get your diploma.”