Not long ago, Brent Lee dropped out of Whites Creek High School during his senior year. The everyday fear of rival gang members overwhelmed his studies.
“I was in a lot of danger,” Lee recalled. “I could have transferred to a surrounding school, but I would have been in more danger.”
Lee is the type of student who previously fell through the cracks of Metro Nashville Public Schools, a kid who probably made some bad choices, failed to run that final senior lap, and wasted years of academics, exiting with no diploma to show. Once upon a time, he was just another statistic contributing to what had always been a low district-wide graduation rate, which stood at a dismal 58.2 percent as recently as 2004.
But this Friday, Lee, now 20 years old, will put on a cap and gown at the Family of God at Woodmont Hills off Franklin Pike. He’ll listen to a commencement speech, shake hands with the principal, throw his cap in the air and celebrate with 50 fellow graduates from The Academy at Old Cockrill. Soon, Lee plans to enroll at Nashville State Community College before studying geosciences at Middle Tennessee State University.
“It feels amazing,” he said.
Lee’s school — which he discovered through a friend after leaving gangs behind — and the Academy at Opry Mills (currently housed at Hickory Hollow Mall after flood damage in May) are recent additions at MNPS; both opened last year. The schools take a no-excuses approach — leave the drama at home, as Old Cockrill principal Elaine Fahrner likes to says — to help students, ages 17 through 21, who like Lee lack just a few of the 22 credit hours to graduate. The schools, flexible enough to allow students to also work full-time jobs, pack classes that take an entire year in traditional schools into intense nine-week sessions. Graduates leave with diplomas just as authentic as if they had graduated from Whites Creek, Hillsboro or Stratford high schools.
“A lot of our kids have been out there without a diploma and realized, ‘Oh Lord, what have I done?’ ” Fahrner said. “ ‘I need my diploma.’ ”
The academies, Nashville educators say, are just one reason why the school district’s graduation rate has climbed substantially in recent years — to 73.1 percent in 2009. Later this month, the Tennessee Department of Education will release Metro schools’ latest “report card,” which includes updated graduate rate figures. Though the numbers aren’t yet public, the ascendance will continue.
“When the report card comes out this year, we’ll see a significant gain this year also,” Director of Schools Jesse Register said. “I’m very pleased with that.”
For a school system that has historically made headlines for the wrong reasons, the story of the district’s improving graduation rates is a silver lining amid some continued pessimism. Perhaps as soon as this month, the state will release the district’s updated federal No Child Left Behind test results, and given increased academic standards, there’s a good chance MNPS could once again fail to reach benchmarks. Amid that kind of news, the graduation rate is something Nashville’s education community can legitimately tout.
There’s not one single initiative, approach, spending increase or theme that explains the turnaround; rather, it’s a combination of things ranging from improved attendance-keeping to more after-school opportunities.
Underlying it all is a larger trend. Like MNPS, school districts throughout Tennessee are graduating more and more kids.
A report released in November by Washington-based America’s Promise Alliance — an organization chaired by Gen. Colin Powell — found that Tennessee is leading the nation in reducing its status as a so-called “dropout factory,” a category given to states, school districts or schools that have graduation rates lower than 60 percent.
Since 2002, Tennessee has raised its graduation rate from 59.6 percent to 74.9 percent, a trajectory that resembles the gains of MNPS. In all, 24 schools are now above the dropout-factory threshold. Tennessee is part of an overall Southern resurgence, with states below the Mason-Dixon Line making the most progress nationwide. (Southern states also had the most ground to make up.)
“We’re making slow but steady progress,” said David Park of America’s Promise Alliance. “Tennessee has really led the way.”
Many changes factor into the state’s graduation-rate jump. Park credited a state law passed in 2001 that requires students to stay in school and make academic progress or risk having their driver’s licenses suspended. He also cited the state’s “effective use of data,” referring to value-added data, which gives teachers the ability to track the progress of students year-by-year instead of comparing student to student. Park said state educators put teams of professionals in dropout-factory schools to utilize the data.
Still, Tennessee’s graduation rate isn’t blowing other states away. Instead, the Volunteer State has merely met the national average of 75 percent.
“Even with the success in Tennessee, Tennessee is now on par with the national average of graduation rate,” Park said. “So, there’s still a long way to go, but to come from where Tennessee was is really incredible, and like nothing else we’ve seen.”
Educators’ goal is to increase the state’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2014, which is more ambitious than the national goal of the same percentage by 2020. Register, who is wrapping up his second year at Metro schools, shares the 90 percent target. He said what makes the recent progress “impressive” — and future gains challenging — is the simultaneous raising of standards and expectation inside the classroom.
In 2009, the state began the Tennessee Diploma Project, hoping to create a curriculum geared more toward college prep and raising the standards for state testing. The new standards are being phased in, with last year’s crop of ninth-grade students the first class to adhere to them. Total credits rose from 20
to 22, with a new emphasis placed on math, science and foreign languages.
“The high school diploma is becoming harder to get,” Register said. Combine that with the increased graduation rate, he said, and it’s a “double positive.”
New programs, new schools
Not surprisingly, Register, when asked to explain the turnaround inside Metro schools, first mentions the “three R’s,” a motto he’s trumpeted since his arrival from Chattanooga. The R’s stand for rigor, relevance and relationships, three new points of emphasis he said are being pushed through Small Learning Communities, the model used in the district’s comprehensive high schools. Grade levels, beginning with ninth-grade academies, are broken down into career-oriented themes so students can study via a topic of their choice. Register claims it’s paying off, both in terms of breaking down the district’s large, impersonal high schools and by giving students more of an incentive to study.
A recent influx of nontraditional schools has also delivered more options to Metro students. The two academies — Old Cockrill and Opry Mills — combined graduated 250 students during their first year, Register said, with another set of graduates to receive diplomas this week. Register plans to consider keeping an academy at Hickory Hollow Mall permanently when the Opry Mills location reopens, which would bring the total to three.
On the theme of alternative high school schools, Register also cited the district’s Big Picture High School, which seeks to create individualized, project-based learning for nontraditional students, and the Diploma Plus High School, available to students with ninth- or 10th-grade credit levels who are “disengaged with the traditional system.” Moving forward, the district plans to increase the number of so-called virtual classrooms and online courses.
“You have to just really understand that in a very large system like this, with a highly diverse student population, that the traditional high school just doesn’t work with everyone,” Register said. “We have to be very determined to look at alternative approaches that can meet the needs of a variety of
But nontraditional schooling accounts for only a small fraction of a district that has now ballooned to nearly 78,000 students. So efforts in the district’s high schools may be having the most profound effect on the graduation rate.
Register said high schools more than ever are providing after-school opportunities for students to make up classes they have failed, an approach also carried out through credit retrieval and independent study during the day. In addition, the district has reduced the number of out-of-school suspensions by 10 percent over the past year and suspensions in general by 13 percent. On this end, Register credits the recently launched Twilight program, which works as an after-school remediation program, an alternative to out-of-school suspensions that largely serves African-American males. Register said MNPS is in the process of installing a dashboard on principals’ computers to signal when students are exhibiting “danger signs” that could keep them from graduating.
Of course, these initiatives cost money. And part of the graduation rate equation is the growing budget for public schools, which continues to increase even during economic downturns, like the past two years, in which the intake of sales tax revenue has decreased. The current MNPS budget, approved by the school board and Metro Council, and signed off by Mayor Karl Dean, is $633 million (up $70 million since 2007-08).
“Since I’ve been in office, we have increased funding for schools, and we’ve done this at a time where most other departments and the budget as a whole have been cut,” Dean said.
As well, there’s an ongoing effort that seems pretty fundamental (and cheap): making sure kids are in their seats.
Schools still failing
Robbin Wall, who Register recruited last year from Irving, Texas, to take over as principal at McGavock High School, the largest public school in Tennessee, said making up lost ground starts with making sure kids are coming to class.
“There are some laws out there about attendance,” Wall said, referring to truancy dictates from the state. “I don’t even think parents are aware of it. Students are supposed to be in attendance 90 percent of the school-assigned days. You should be in attendance 162 [of the 180] days.”
Wall said he’s tried to make McGavock parents aware of the state’s attendance requirements. The district has also provided each high school cluster with social workers who make phone calls and home visits to students who aren’t showing up at school.
“They’re sitting down with parents and showing them, ‘Suzie’s been out for 15 days, and it’s only November. She’s got to attend school if she’s ever going to graduate,’ ” Wall said. “What [the district] has done with the cluster groups — giving us those social workers to make home visits — that’s made attendance much more important to our families.”
In general — and here’s another effort that seems obvious — Wall said principals, teachers and guidance counselors are doing a better job of informing students of graduation requirements.
“I don’t think that the importance of a lot of things that students had to do to graduate was ever pointed out to them,” Wall said.
According to Register, the biggest gains in graduation rates are found among special-needs, economically disadvantaged and African-American students, as well as the district’s English Language Learner population. But the district’s Hispanic population — with a 57.3 percent graduation rate in 2008 — still lags far behind other subgroups.
The challenge of graduating students who speak English as a second language is perhaps no more pronounced than at Glencliff High School, which boasts one of the state’s most diverse populations. Glencliff’s overall graduation rate jumped from 66.6 percent in 2008 to 73.3 percent in 2009, though the rate for Hispanics is still 59.5 percent.
“Anytime you have exceptional [special] ed or English Language Learners, that adds a different dynamic to your recovery model,” said Glencliff principal Tony Majors. “I think the biggest thing is, with the new state graduation standards, those kids are still held accountable for earning the course credits necessary for graduation. We do different things to help those students who have additional needs, such as more tutoring and programs like that.”
Majors said more than 100 Glencliff students are currently involved in the school’s after-school academy, which offers a potpourri of services — things like credit recovery courses for students, online and virtual classes, and one-on-one tutoring.
“It’s a broad model,” he said. “It basically focuses on giving students alternatives in their educational program.”
Of course, the district’s climbing graduation rate shouldn’t mask other realities. Metro high school students last year scored on average a 19 on their ACTs, below the 20.6 state average. Only Asian and Caucasian subgroups are exceeding state proficiency targets in math as well as reading, language, and writing. And with the district’s economically disadvantaged population continuing to rise, MNPS will continue to face all the challenges of an urban school district.
Register understands the improved graduation rate is only one unit of data, but he believes it shouldn’t be downplayed.
“It’s an outcome, if you will,” Register said. “We want a very high number of graduates and, of course, the corresponding drop in dropouts. We want a very high number of graduates, and we want them to leave us with good skills.”