getting to graduation

How one high-poverty Jefferson County school saw a huge leap in its high school graduation rates

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

The teenagers that made up the Class of 2016 at Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School weren’t much different than students who had come before them.

A lot of them qualified for government-subsidized lunches, an indicator of poverty. For many, English was a second language. Some had switched schools multiple times.

This group, however, distinguished itself by one important measure — graduating on time.

Eighty percent of Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School seniors last school year graduated in four years — a much higher percentage of students than in past years. The Class of 2015 had a 64 percent on-time graduation rate, making for a stunning turnaround.

The Colorado Department of Education released graduation rates last week showing the state reaching a six-year high while local districts in the metro area saw increases and two posted some drops. The Jefferson County school district had a graduation rate of 82.8 percent in 2016, virtually unchanged from the 82.9 percent rate in 2015.

At Jefferson, school officials credit their jump to changes made during the Class of 2016’s sophomore year, when new school leaders arrived to try new ideas for improving the school.

The changes included adding dual language classes, increasing teacher training and adding more advanced coursework.

“This particular class was with us for three years,” said principal Michael James. “The consistency (enables) kids to feel connected to the programming, to the teachers, to the staff, to our expectations. To a point where it becomes a part of them and they’re able to buy into what we are doing. If you don’t start those practices and start those expectations early, you’re already behind for graduation.”

Last year the school was transformed from a high school to a school serving grades seven through 12. That means staff at Jefferson can start working with students even earlier — up to six years before graduation.

School staff also say the work to change school culture helped bump up graduation rates. At Jefferson that meant adding rules to keep students from roaming the hallways during the day and changing the back-to-school nights to engage more parents, among other efforts.

 

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
Michael James, principal of Jefferson Jr. Sr. High School, far right, with four of the school’s assistant principals.

Back-to-school night at Jefferson now resembles a carnival with bouncy castles, drummers, mariachi band and a barbecue.

“It’s just non-traditional,” said Amy Alvarez, an assistant principal at Jefferson. “We think of what’s the goal, and for our community it’s getting them into the building so they feel safe. It’s not so much about getting the school supply list for chemistry. It’s a very different goal.”

At the time the changes started, Jefferson High was one of Jeffco Public School’s lowest performing schools. Even with the graduation increases of this year, the school remains one of the district’s lower performing among traditional district-run schools.

Limited state test results are available for the school. For privacy reasons, the state obscures some data when fewer than four students fall into an achievement category — which happened frequently in Jefferson’s case. But from 2016 results that are available, only 3.2 percent of eighth-graders taking the English tests, and 3.2 percent of seventh graders taking the math test scored proficient or advanced.

School officials say district-level testing data show students are making significant growth since August 2015, especially in reading.

Test scores from juniors in Jeffco taking the ACT in 2015 averaged 15.6, slightly lower than the average of 16.1 for the juniors who took the test in 2014. The juniors who took the test in 2016 — the class that would be graduating this spring — had an average score of 16.

Rhiannon Wenning, who has been teaching juniors and seniors at Jefferson High for 15 years, said teachers have not changed how they pass students and said they are strict about making sure students only graduate if they are ready.

“I think most definitely they are prepared,” Wenning said. “It’s been a systematic growth.”

Wenning credited new teacher training and planning efforts, more consistency in working with English language learners and better parent engagement.

In addition to the more popular back-to-school nights, Jefferson High officials created a “Parent University,” where parents are invited to a discussion once a month about topics related to parenting and family well-being. Jefferson and other schools in the area are also working with the Edgewater Collective, a community nonprofit that is helping connect families to outside resources and bringing more volunteers into schools.

Grants have also helped the school add after-school activities and support staff. James used grant money to hire a teacher for a class at Jefferson called “community living.” One recent morning, students in the class were discussing words they live by, trusting their gut and making good decisions.

Students at Jefferson are being taught to become more responsible for their learning, James said, leading their own parent-teacher conferences because they are expected to know how they’re doing and any credits they’re missing.

James’ team also changed summer opportunities. Students who are missing credits are required to take classes over the summer, but the school also started offering summer classes to students who just want to get ahead so they can enroll in advanced courses during the school year.

JoAnn Euler, an assistant principal at Jefferson, said the number of students participating in Advanced Placement courses increased substantially starting with the Class of 2016.

Even if some students don’t score high enough to earn college credit, the class raises expectations for students, school officials say.

Other measures such as attendance rates and teacher retention rates are also increasing at Jefferson, making officials cautiously optimistic that the new higher graduation rates will hold or continue to climb.

“We’re so excited,” James said. “To increase 16 percentage points in one year is unreal. It gives us great hope.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.