U.S. public high schools reached a milestone a few weeks ago when the Associated Press reported the national graduation rate is at a record 80 percent, according to 2012 Education Department statistics. Based on that progress, researchers are projecting that rate should rise to 90 percent by 2020, a rate the Sedalia School District 200 has already surpassed.
According to 2013 statistics, Sedalia 200 has a graduation rate of 93.7 percent, a significantly higher than the national average. Several new academic programs have been put in place in the last five years, and Superintendent Brad Pollitt said he attributes the “steady increase” to those programs — just five years ago, in 2009, the Sedalia 200 graduation rate was at 89.6 percent.
“In our district we added Whittier (High School) a number of years back. This year I think we’re going to graduate 47, which is a large number of students,” Pollitt said. “Without Whittier some could fall through the cracks. When they get behind on credits it can help them catch up, they can work at their own pace.
“The Playto program is an online academic program we have. A teacher monitors the program in the lab and students work to gain back credit that they’ve lost. We also have a night school at Whittier that on average has 15 to 17 attend. It meets from 3:30 to 6:30 (p.m.) every day. They may have started a family, they may have other issues where the traditional school day isn’t working out for them.”
Those recently implemented programs have helped Sedalia 200 see an increase in the number of graduates walking across the stage, but Smith-Cotton High School Principal Wade Norton attributes a lot of that increase to the “check and connect” program.
“We’re trying to make a big school into smaller pods,” Norton said. “Within our seminar, it’s a 28-minute homeroom, the expectation in seminar is teachers check and connect with (students), get to know them on a first name basis, follow up on attendance, grades, is everything OK. They turn in forms, note any concerns, basic needs, grades, academic and social problems, and administrators and the guidance office and social work office follow up on those concerns.
“The system is in place to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Once we’re gelled together, once people buy into it, which I think we’re really close, I hope it will help improve that 13 above (the national average). I think we can get it even higher.”
That “check and connect” program, which Norton started when he was principal at Smith-Cotton Junior High and carried over when he came to SCHS this year, has the most impact on student attendance, which both Pollitt and Norton said is a huge factor in the graduation rate.
“If they come to school on a consistent basis, they’ll be more successful, they won’t put themselves in a situation where they have to figure out how to catch up,” Norton said. “It’s probably the biggest factor in the school setting. If they’re not there it’s hard to teach them and help them meet graduation expectations.”
State attendance requirements will change this fall, requiring 90 percent of students to be at school 90 percent of the time, causing districts to refocus how they approach attendance. Norton said the attendance secretary sends administration and the guidance office the day’s attendance report within 30 minutes of the start of the school day. Once they receive the report, they get to work.
“We knock on doors,” Norton said. “With that report information, counselors and principals, we make phone calls, wake them up, inform the parents their child went back to sleep after they woke them up, or we go get them.”
Social workers are another new aspect to the district that has helped student success. The district currently has six social workers, each assigned to two buildings; those who have larger buildings only have one assignment. Pollitt said the district hopes to add a seventh social worker soon through a grant. Those employees work directly with counselors and administrators to make sure students are on track both academically and socially.
“They spend a lot of time working with kids that have issues whether family or personal that really get in the way of their education,” Pollitt said. “The social workers and counselors work hard with those kids. We know we have a very diverse society in the community and the district works hard to meet the needs of as many students as we can, but there comes a time where it’s the responsibility of the student. They have to want to get a high school diploma and be willing to do what it takes. Statistics are very clear that those kids involved in co- and extra-curricular activities have a much higher rate than those students that are not involved. I give some credit to JROTC, which started a number of years back and reached students that needed a place to fit.”
When it comes down to it, Norton made it clear the district will do whatever is needed to help a student succeed. When asked what SCHS has been doing to help increase the local graduation rate, he had a simple answer: “We don’t give up.”
“We will do anything within our powers 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet the needs of the child,” he said. “We work around their schedule, if it’s work or family, whatever it is, to put a plan in place to meet the graduation requirement and we stay on them. We follow up, gather data, and the counselors and administrators meet on a weekly basis. We have students we’re watching that are behind schedule and we keep track of them. We know what they’re doing and call them in when they’re not making progress.”
Pollitt seemed to agree, noting how student-teacher relationships are especially important when it comes to encouraging students to want to come to school and want to learn.
“We steadily increased the graduation rate and we continue to evaluate each year,” Pollitt said. “Attendance is a huge factor in success. Sometimes attendance helps when students have connections. When a staff member takes an appropriate connection with a student, they want to be there.
“We don’t have a one size fits all, we try to be diverse. We work at it. Our teachers work awfully hard for their students. But it goes back to the bottom line that the student has to want to do their part because it’s their education and their diploma.”