The need of states with historically low graduation rates to boost those numbers is intensified by data that links grad rates to the state's overall economic health. (Saks High School Thursday night; Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
As Anniston High School graduation coach Joyce Hutchins watched students stream through the hallways after senior awards day, she pointed out one, Jasmine Heard.
On May 8, Heard, a slender 18-year-old, signed a track scholarship to Stillman College.
“She's a very good example and a very good testament,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins’ job is to make sure students like Heard, who might have an excuse to drop out, don’t.
Just as she was preparing to enter high school four years ago, Heard learned she would become a mother. Many young women in such circumstances might find it hard to finish high school. Heard, with Hutchins’ help, stuck it out.
On Thursday, Heard received an advanced academic diploma at Anniston High’s graduation ceremony. She hopes her studies at Stillman will lead to a career that will help her provide a good life for her son, Jayden, now age 4.
Heard said Hutchins works every day to talk with students and encourage them to stay in school.
“She really pushed hard for us to stay on track and graduate,” Heard said.
State and local governments invest in assistance such as graduation coaches like Hutchins because the alternative is far more expensive.
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the mean annual salary for a high school dropout is nearly a third less than someone with a high school diploma.
And that drop in earnings can affect the economy of an entire state. According to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, in 2009 Alabama’s rank among the 50 states was 46 on the percentage of adults with a high school diploma. Alabama ranked 42nd in per-capita income, with less than $36,000 per resident.
Improve the graduation rate, PARCA researchers argue, and you’ll see growth in Alabama’s economy.
"That's probably the smartest bet we can make," said Thomas Spencer, a senior research associate for PARCA.
A nine-part plan
In recent years, state leaders have launched initiatives aimed at raising the graduation rate. In 2009, the Alabama Legislature passed a law raising the age until which students are required to attend school to 17 from 16. State Sen. Arthur Orr said the law got Alabama off a list of 15 states still using 16 as the age. The legislation also requires educators to conduct an exit interview with every student who drops out.
Orr chaired a committee of 20 educators and lawmakers formed to suggest ways to improve Alabama’s dropout rates in 2009. The group gave nine recommendations:
[bullet] The Alabama Graduation Tracking System, a program that identifies risk factors for students such as attendance problems, disciplinary infractions and low grades so that educators can create a plan to keep children on track.
Kay Atchison-Warfield, a graduation success and dropout prevention administrator with the Alabama Department of Education, said they have trained more than 300 people in the program and all schools should be using it by Christmas.
[bullet] The Comprehensive Student Support Systems Service, a program that will coordinate all services available to students such as social workers, resource officers and graduation coaches. The recommendation included $770,000 to pay for 11 regional specialists to help schools systems coordinate services.
Atchison-Warfield said education officials have started the program but it has not received anywhere near $770,000.
[bullet] The Positive Behavior Supports, a national program that seeks to improve behavior issues with students. The initiative goes away from zero-tolerance policies and promotes more positive reinforcement than traditional disciplinary practices. The commission’s suggestion also includes a quarter million dollars for a parent training program called the Parent Project.
Atchison-Warfield said Parent Project has had a lot of success, with about one-third of judges in the state referring parents to the program when they have disciplinary or truancy issues with their children. Atchison-Warfield said each of the state’s 11 in-service districts has multiple trainers for the program.
Atchison-Warfield added that Calhoun County has a good example of a Parent Project with its Family Links program.
[bullet] A statewide public engagement campaign. Atchison-Warfield said state leaders launched one in March 2011 and the chances for a revisit with a summit on dropout prevention planned for this summer.
Orr said revisiting the campaign regularly should be a big part of the state’s strategy for improving graduation rates.
[bullet] Recovery academies, in which students who have already dropped out can return in an alternative school setting and finish their requirements.
Atchison-Warfield said Blount and Baldwin counties each have pilot programs of recovery academies. Whether they expand to the rest of the state depends on the support of the Legislature.
[bullet] Establish a guide for reviewing school systems’ codes of conduct.
Atchison-Warfield said this suggestion is the weakest of the nine suggestions from the commission. She said many school boards have policies that don’t embrace the philosophies of Positive Behavior Supports.
[bullet] Expanding Advanced Placement opportunities.
Atchison-Warfield said the state has made significant progress with AP courses. The number of participating students has more than doubled from 2007 to 2011, she said.
[bullet] Instating a mandatory attendance age of 19.
Atchison-Warfield said she couldn’t comment on the likelihood of the age being increased. However, she said she was involved with the push to move the age from 16 to 17, and it was extremely difficult.
[bullet] The Innovative Pathways Program, which allows educators to use credit recovery courses, online classes and other tools to offer flexible options for students to complete high school. The commission suggested $1.3 million for the pilot project.
Atchison-Warfield said the program has begun, but with less funding. This year, for example, department officials have $500,000 from the Preparing Alabama Students for Success to hand out in the form of a $20,000 grant per school district approved.
With those funds, officials from each school district form a program that best tackles its dropout issues.
A big part of Anniston’s approach to increasing the graduation rate is Hutchins’ role as a graduation coach.
Hutchins, who’s been in her job three years, said being flexible and working to solve students’ problems is a big part of keeping them on track. Sometimes that means picking a student up when she doesn’t have a ride to school, she said.
Hutchins said many older students who are fighting the odds to earn diplomas after trouble earlier in school — 19- and 20-year-olds — are often uncomfortable attending a homeroom class with 14- and 15-year-olds. Hutchins said that to fix that, she became a homeroom teacher for Anniston’s older students.
Hutchins said three main groups stand a high risk of dropping out: over-age students, those with children of their own and students with attendance issues.
She said each at-risk student gets a one-on-one interview in which an educator tries to get at the heart of the student’s problems.
Anniston City Schools Superintendent Joan Frazier said a student who is considering dropping out can be interviewed by as many as four educators, including the superintendent.
Hutchins also reviews student testing data with the school’s department heads to help tailor instruction to students’ weaknesses. She said the school also offers a tutoring program in which retired teachers work with students.
Hutchins said for students who are parents themselves, the faculty try to make every effort to keep them in school. She said when young mothers have to miss school while having babies, she goes to all their teachers and collects their school work so they can complete it at home. And recently, a local company has donated free child care to students who need it.
There’s also the Anniston High’s class for parents, which offers students with children a time to study for tests and do their homework. They also have guest speakers to talk about topics such as healthy eating or infant CPR, Hutchins said.
Heard, who started in the program when it began in her junior year, said the students also received books to read to their children — something 4-year-old Jayden enjoyed.
Hutchins said that this year, 10 young mothers from the course graduated on Thursday.
Anniston High Principal Sherron Jinadu and Hutchins said Anniston High also offers a drop-in program for students who have dropped out. The course lets them come back and take classes in the afternoon.
Matt Akin, superintendent of Piedmont City Schools, said a big reason for his district’s high graduation rate — 97 percent for the class of 2011 — is the flexibility educators offer to students.
Piedmont schools have stressed technology in the classroom, working toward a goal of putting a Internet-enabled device into the hands of each student. The system has also offered more online classes.
Akin added that Piedmont offers credit recovery courses, in which students take tests to learn their particular remediation needs and work with software to improve those areas. The students can work online or be pulled out of the classroom.
Akin said the credit recovery option is helpful for students who have fallen behind because those who have to repeat a course often get frustrated and are more likely to drop out.
Akins stressed, however, that a big part of the school district’s success with graduation rates is that the schools are part of a smaller, tight-knit community in which all the faculty know the students.
“We’re in constant contact,” he said.
This year, Calhoun County Schools started its PASS program, which offers flexibility to students at risk of dropping out or students who already have. The project, housed at the system's alternative school in Jacksonville, allows students to work at their own pace, doing coursework on computers. They can also work on their own computers from home.
“I think it’s a blessing for students who can’t make it socially or academically,” said Robin Kines, alternative education program director. “They thrive here.”
Kines said that about a quarter of the students who drop out do so because they need a job to pay for a place to live. She said PASS gives those kids the flexibility to work and still get a diploma.
Kines said the system had its first candidate in November. Fourteen students have now completed the credits they need, and administrators expect to have 20 students from the PASS program graduate.
One of those students is 18-year-old Brooklynn Schultz. She and 19-year-old Justen Hanson, the father of her 7-month-old baby, struggled to juggle school, work and caring for their girl, Bethany.
Schultz said that in the back of her mind, she was worried they would lose custody of Bethany because of the issues.
But her teachers found a local church that would provide child care and she and Justen started taking courses through the PASS program. They were able to stagger their schedules so that one could work while the other completed coursework.
Now, they have both completed all the credits needed for their diplomas.
“That’s certainly been a blessing because they are both extremely smart,” Kines said.
Schultz said without the program, they would still be trying to figure out a way to manage school, work and child care. More than likely one of them would have ended up dropping out, she said.
“I’m glad they had it when they did because it helped out a lot,” she said.
With high school diplomas, both Schultz and Hanson will be eligible for many jobs that would be out of the question for a drop out.
A fighting chance
The link between a high school diploma and a chance at a middle-class lifestyle is clear, experts believe. Without a diploma, an individual’s lifetime earnings potential is much lower.
Roughly 23,000 students in Alabama did not graduate from high school in 2011; the lost lifetime earnings for that class of dropouts alone total $2.5 billion, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
At least four of Calhoun County’s top employers — Anniston Army Depot, Regional Medical Center, BAE Systems and the Oxford City Schools — require applicants to have a high school diploma or GED before seeking a job.
Education beyond high school further increases an individual’s lifetime earnings potential, experts say. Some think that easing students’ paths through the education system would help make easier to climb the ladder from diploma to degree and beyond.
Thomas Raines, policy director for the A+ Education Foundation, said Alabama could improve graduation rates by having one group in charge of the entire education pipeline.
Right now, he said, pre-K, K through 12, two-year colleges and universities are all managed by different agencies.
"That leads to a lack of alignment among the different sectors," he said.
Many states have such groups, called P-20 Councils, and Raines said they help make sure all the different levels are communicating with one another.
A shifting standard
One way education officials have worked to improve graduation rates throughout the country is to have every state using the same standard to calculate graduation rates. Each state went to the same formula starting in the 2011-2012 school year.
Spencer, the PARCA researcher, said that before every state went to the same formula, means of calculating the rate varied greatly from state to state and many would have deflated graduation numbers. Some school systems would calculate their rate by comparing their 11th grade enrollment to their 12th-grade graduates, which overlooked the students who dropped out in the ninth and 10th grades. On the other hand, Spencer said, some schools didn’t adequately track student transfers, which ultimately inflated their dropout rates.
Now schools are mandated to document each transfer.
Using Alabama Department of Education data, Alabama graduation rate went from 88 percent in 2010 to 72 percent in 2011. But Raines said the latest number is not so much a drop, but rather a more accurate picture because of the new tracking standards.
Many education officials often warn the rates should not be compared from one year to another because of the shift to the new calculation.
Those new standards, however, mean a lot of extra work, local administrators say.
"Every year we go on a nationwide search (to track down all the students who didn’t show up for school)," said Anniston City School Superintendent Joan Frazier, who added the new standard is particularly hard on schools with more transient student populations.
Frazier said the best thing she can say about the new standard is that it provides easy comparisons from state to state.
"It's a very misunderstood piece of data," she said.
Many local school administrators said the rate also doesn’t take into consideration certain non-traditional graduation circumstances. Special education students who do not get degrees despite staying in school count as dropouts, and so do students who drop out to get their GEDs.
According to PARCA, even though Alabama’s graduation rate remains low — 72 percent compared to 78 percent nationwide — the state is gaining ground. The percentage of graduates has increased every year since 2003, and the gap between Alabama and the national average has shrunk from 12 to eight percentage points over that time.
America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and Johns Hopkins University's Everyone Graduates Center released a report that ranked Alabama fourth among the states in gains made on graduation rates — from 62.1 percent in 2002 to 69 percent in 2008.
If Alabama makes further gains in the next few years of statistics, the diploma Jasmine Heard got on Thursday will be among those raising the state’s graduation rate.
That diploma is part of Heard’s ticket to Stillman, a private, historically black college in Tuscaloosa with just more than 1,000 students.
Heard initially planned to study business management, but in recent weeks has been thinking of a career in physical therapy. That career wouldn’t be possible without the achievement for which she was recognized on Thursday night at Anniston’s Lott-Mosby Stadium.
“I’m really excited,” she said before the ceremony, gathered with friends as they adjusted their mortarboards and posed for photos. “This is an emotional day.”
Assistant Metro Editor Daniel Gaddy: 256-235-3560. On Twitter @DGaddy_star.