3 Turnaround Tips for High Schools With Low Graduation Rates

Despite rising graduation rates nationwide, some high schools still lag behind.

At least one-third of students at more than 1,200 high schools — which collectively serve more than 1.1 million students — don’t graduate, according to a report released last week from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national education reform policy and advocacy group. Many students at these schools are minorities or from low-income families.

Improving student outcomes at these high schools can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible.

Talladega County School District in Alabama, for example, has seen a large improvement in its graduation rate. Formerly one of the district’s lowest-performing schools, Winterboro High School in Alpine went from a graduation rate of about 63 percent in 2008 to 90 percent in 2014, according to district data.

Find out below what educators have done to improve graduation rates at low-performing schools.

1. Encourage students to take ownership of their education: Improvements begin to happen when students are more responsible for their learning, says Suzanne Lacey, superintendent of Talladega County Schools.

Her district placed a large emphasis on project-based learning — an instructional strategy in which students learn through working on projects. Students became very interested in their projects, she says, and began working overtime at school — attendance rates went up and disciplinary rates went down, she says.

“I think the instructional piece is just as important as the school culture piece because you really have to work hard to prepare the transition for students sitting in rows and desks to this more collaborative model,” she says.

Find out [tips for transitioning to project-based learning.]

Students at North High School in Denver analyze and reflect on their academic and attendance performance and set goals to improve each quarter, says principal Nicole Veltze. The school saw a double-digit increase in its graduation rate from the 2008-2009 school year to 2013-2014, according to state data.

Educators at the school have set high expectations for their students too, she says. Her school has set graduation requirements for seniors that go beyond the district minimums, for example.

“Many people don’t necessarily realize that that’s a fundamental answer to getting kids to have hopes and dreams of graduating and moving on to college,” she says.

2. Make teacher professional development opportunities a priority: “We’ve created a strong culture of professional learning for our adults that is differentiated based on their needs,” says Veltze.

Teachers regularly meet with their peers at the area’s middle schools to share ideas and ensure they are on the same page.

They know that once students move to high school in ninth grade, there’s only so much the staff will be able to do on important college skills like argument writing, she says.

In Talladega County, educators observe their peers within their district and beyond to discover ways to improve.

“One of the most powerful things when we first were working to make changes was to visit other places across the nation and to see it in action,” Lacey says. “We would leave these particular schools so inspired and with the mindset that, ‘We can do this, we know we can do this.'”

3. Get communities and families involved: “We can’t do this alone as a school. It takes the families as well,” says Veltze, the Colorado principal. Her school makes constant efforts to communicate with families to make sure they know if their child is on the path to success, she says.

Then parents can reinforce the high expectations teachers are putting on students.

The school has also partnered with community organizations to offer additional supports, such as mentoring and help with college applications to students, she says.

Discover how [after-school programs can help teens at risk of dropping out.]

Lacey’s schools in Alabama have incorporated technology into the classroom to support learning. Students can use tech tools, such as iPads and MacBooks, to watch educational videos or connect with a scientist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, for example, she says.

“In a rural area, many of our students are not exposed to life outside of their communities so being able to connect all over the world through the use of technology has been a huge equalizer for our students,” she says.

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.

Alexandra Pannoni is an education staff writer at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter or email her at apannoni@usnews.com.

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