Here’s how a school’s graduation rate soared double digits two straight years

Alencia Sims and Johnny McPherson, two students at Carver High School, participate Monday in the school’s Academic Recovery program, which school officials say has helped Carver improve its graduation rate by double digits in each of the past two years.
Alencia Sims and Johnny McPherson, two students at Carver High School, participate Monday in the school’s Academic Recovery program, which school officials say has helped Carver improve its graduation rate by double digits in each of the past two years.

Last week’s news that the Muscogee County School District’s graduation rate continues to outperform the national and state averages includes a school that has increased its graduation rate by double digits in each of the past two years. So the Ledger-Enquirer visited Carver High School this week to find out how it produced such signification improvement despite all of its 1,180 students being eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The numbers

MCSD improved its graduation rate by 1.5 percentage points, from 84.6 percent in 2015 to 86.1 percent in 2016. The state average improved by 0.4 points, from 78.8 to 79.2. It’s the third straight year the district has surpassed the state average. In the past four graduating classes, Muscogee County has increased its graduation rate by 13.3 percentage points, while the state’s rate has increased by 7.4 points.

This is the second year the state’s graduating class isn’t required to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Tests since the high-stakes exams were phased out.

Reporting for the nation’s graduation rate is a year behind the state and local data. The nation’s graduation rate of 83 percent is at a record high, although that figure, released last month, is for 2015 graduates; the figures the state released last week are for 2016 graduates.

All those statistics put in perspective Carver’s recent performance: After dipping 2.7 percentage points, from 61.3 to 58.6, between 2013 and 2014, Carver’s graduation rate has soared — by 17.8 percentage points to 76.4 in 2015 and now by 13.1 percentage points to 89.5 in 2016.

The mindset

For principal Chris Lindsey, the challenge is “trying to keep these kids in the mindset that education is going to improve their lives.”

Lindsey tells students that failing to graduate from high school will put them on one of three paths: “You’re going to wind up in jail or prison; you’re going to wind up dead; or you’re going to wind up on drugs or alcohol and walking up and down the streets and talking to yourself.”

The principal calls Carver’s approach “a family atmosphere.” Without it, he said, “kids feel like they’re just a number and nobody cares about them.”

Lindsey also tells students, “We leave it up to you, but we also keep a system of checks and balances to help you do the right thing. We’re going to keep on nudging you.”

The programs

Part of that nudging manifests in two programs at Carver: Academic Recovery and Attendance Recovery.

Academic Recovery is for students who fail a core class (English, math, science or social studies) with a grade of 55-69, said assistant principal Cassandra Phillips.

Last school year, 141 students, including 49 seniors, participated in February-March, and 199 students, including 83 seniors, participated in April-May, Phillips said. They can spend their 55-minute study hall in the program each school day, after school or on Saturdays at Carver, and as much time as they want at home on the self-paced computerized tutorials.

“They’re probably getting two or three lessons in a period,” said Michelle Halloway, the MCSD central region graduation coach.

Whether it’s through Apex Learning or Georgia Virtual School, the Carver participants dramatically can change their academic outlook. The Ledger-Enquirer met three of them Monday.

The students

Devon Cook-Barnes, 17, was two grades behind his peers when the school year started in August; in three months, he already has caught up to them in 12th grade.

“He’s been working a lot at home, at night, late at night, on the weekends,” Halloway said. “It was important for him to get into a senior homeroom.”

Devon said he fell behind because of some failed courses and too many absences. He would miss the morning bus, couldn’t get a ride and wouldn’t want to walk to school, at least 30 minutes away.

Devon said he realized he wouldn’t graduate with his peers unless he changed his attitude. Doing his school work alone on a computer, he said, allows him to focus more and eliminate the distractions he struggles with in a larger classroom. He has completed six courses through Apex and is back on track to graduate. He hopes to earn a finance degree in college.

“He smiles every day now,” Phillips said.

Alencia Sims, 17, is a senior who began the school year as a junior. She beamed as she said confirmed she is on track to graduate, thanks to Georgia Virtual School’s credit recovery program

“My ninth-grade year, I played around,” she said. “The beginning of my 11th-grade year, I was pregnant and I was missing days.”

Now, she is motivated to do well in school.

“I want to make my mama proud and make my baby happy,” she said, “make him have a better life.”

Johnny McPherson, 17, also is a senior who began the school year as a junior.

“I didn’t focus,” he said. “I was skipping school and getting in a lot of trouble and getting suspended.”

Johnny said he became a father in May, so graduating from high school became more important to him. He hopes to serve in the military and be a positive part of his son’s life.

To critics who say this method cuts corners and doesn’t meet standards, Phillips said, “We’re looking at where the kid is and meeting that kid’s needs.”

“As we go through the year, we start looking at students who are coming up,” Halloway said. “During the summertime, we’re up here looking at the data to see who we need to start looking at.”

Phillips said, “We’re looking at the data all the time.”

The staff

Extra funding, Phillips said, allows teachers to be paid for their time working after school and on Saturdays in Academic Recovery and Attendance Recovery. MCSD communications director Valerie Fuller said Carver uses two sources of funds for its recovery programs: $44,800 this fiscal year from the federal Title I program for schools serving impoverished students and $30,217 this fiscal year from the state Instructional Extension Program for students who need additional support. Carver has 16 teachers in the programs on Mondays-Thursdays and as many as six teachers in the programs on Saturdays this year, Fuller said.

All MCSD high schools offer some form of academic or attendance recovery, Fuller said.

Attendance Recovery at Carver allows students to make up absences if they miss more than seven days in a semester. The program runs 3:30-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

Four hours in the Attendance Recovery program equal one full school day, Phillips said. So isn’t that incentive to cut class?

“No, because you’re not making up your assignments then,” Phillips said.

Then isn’t this a glorified study hall?

“No,” Phillips said. “Last year, we used (the computerized reading program) Achieve3000 during Attendance Recovery. This year, we are using USA Test Prep to help them get ready for the assessments, the Georgia Milestones. … Teachers are up on their feet.”

Carver had 24 seniors in Attendance Recovery from September-December 2015 and 61 seniors from January-May 2016, Phillips said. Students in grades 9-11 also are eligible for Attendance Recovery, but their participation numbers weren’t available.

Carver has increased its attendance rate from 90.93 percent in the 2013-14 school year to 94.15 percent in 2016-17 while decreasing its average daily unexcused absences from 63.22 to 40.41 during the same time span.

So the impact of Carver’s effort to improve its graduation rate is clear, Phillips said.

“We began to see kids take ownership of their grades and their attendance,” she said. “What was so great about it, we all worked together and spoke the same language, the administrative staff, the counselors, the teachers, the custodians, I mean, everybody spoke the same language. It was total buy-in.”

And it was a tough sell, Phillips admitted.

“Initially, teachers were skeptical because they thought it was giving grades away,” she said. “They were like, ‘Why is the kid staying after school but he could have done it during the school day?”

Phillips would respond, “That’s a good point, but don’t ever become so detached that you forget to have compassion and heart in this job and understanding. Because when we get behind on our utility bills, if we call Georgia Power, they won’t disconnect us. We say we will have the intent to pay at the end of the month. They’ll put that in the computer. So we have to do that with our students. … A lot of those kids have issues.”

One of those issues is lacking transportation. But the Carver staff doesn’t let that be an excuse for students to not participate in Attendance Recovery. Approximately half a dozen students have permission from their parent for a Carver staff member to drive them, Phillips said.

“We don’t let that stop us,” she said.