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Turning around struggling high schools is the toughest work in education reform. Research found that a $3.5 billion federal program meant to fix the nation’s lowest-performing schools — which focused disproportionately on high schools — did little to improve student achievement. In this ongoing series, The Hechinger Report is visiting high schools that have beaten the long odds to learn what’s behind their success in improving graduation rates and sending more students to college.
TULSA, Okla. — The first thing you notice during morning arrival outside Daniel Webster High School is the cluster of red-jacketed young adults, each holding up a sign identifying their favorite hobby. They’re members of City Year, a nonprofit partner of AmeriCorps that recruits college-age members from across the country to serve as tutors and mentors in high-poverty urban schools. Many of the Webster upperclassmen simply walk by the City Year members, but several younger students stop and engage in conversations about a shared love of video games or binge-watching YouTube clips.
“There are statistics showing that high-poverty students typically have three negative interactions before they get to school,” explained City Year team leader Keanna Marshall, a college graduate who grew up in Tulsa. “So our daily greeting provides a positive interaction before they get into their classroom.”
Webster High School, just a few miles from downtown Tulsa across the Arkansas River, serves the city’s Westside community in which only 15 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher and 10 percent of residents are unemployed. Nine out of ten students at Webster qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a national measure of poverty. As in many schools where poverty and homelessness are daily realities, test scores at Webster have lagged behind statewide averages. But an even bigger struggle has been keeping students in school. By 2013, Webster managed to graduate just 53 percent of its students, and it was clear to school and district officials that drastic change was in order.
“The need to focus on graduation rates was pretty obvious,” said Tulsa school superintendent Deborah Gist. With school budgets already limited by a conservative-led state legislature that critics say chronically underfunds public education, the district turned to Diplomas Now, an education nonprofit whose aim is to increase graduation rates using a data-driven system of early intervention. The results have been impressive. According to data provided by district officials, in spring 2016 (the most recent year available), Webster graduated 75 percent of its seniors, a 22-point increase in just three years.
Under the umbrella of Diplomas Now, three separate organizations, each independently staffed and funded, operate on Webster’s campus. City Year, with its team of 10 corps members, is the most visible. But Communities In Schools, a Virginia-based nonprofit, is a vital pillar of support that directs students and families in need to community resources. Talent Development Secondary, a nonprofit that grew out of a Johns Hopkins University study on dropout rates, is the data-driven arm of the Diplomas Now model; it identifies kids at risk of dropping out and establishes a schoolwide process of intervention and support services to keep them on track to graduate.
The change in the school culture since the Diplomas Now partnership began in 2013 is palpable, marked by rising expectations for students. “Before, the goal was just to finish high school,” said Abi Gruse, a 17-year-old senior who was born and raised in Tulsa’s Westside neighborhood. “But these last few years it’s really been a big turnaround in the school … they really are pushing us toward higher education.”
When kids perform poorly in the classroom, it’s the schools that are held accountable, but those who work with low-income students said that academic struggles are often the least of a child’s problems. “We have students that don’t have the basic needs at home, from laundry detergent to food,” said Corey Rowland, the Communities In Schools site coordinator. “A kid might come to me and say, ‘Our lights got cut off this week.’ Or, ‘My dad was beating on my mom all night.’ My job is to find out why a kid isn’t coming to school, why they’re sleeping in class, why they aren’t in uniform. It’s not just a student being defiant.”
Getting kids to share this type of information is the first challenge. At Webster the emphasis among each of the partner organizations is to establish individual relationships with students. City Year’s members, all between the ages of 17 and 24, serve as “near-peers” and provide one-on-one tutoring, host afterschool programs and sit in on every ninth- and 10th-grade math and English class, in an attempt to create the open lines of communication with students that teachers don’t have the tools or resources to facilitate. “If a kid is having a crisis at home that day,” said math teacher Julie Skrzypczak, “maybe they confide in the City Year member whereas they just come into my room angry.” Sometimes, she said, all it takes is for the City Year member assigned to her class to go take a walk with the student for a few minutes of conversation, and the student returns to the classroom ready to learn.
Rowland can provide access to community and city resources to address problems like homelessness, abuse and mental health needs, but can’t do anything without first gaining the trust of students who may be too ashamed to ask for help. “Kids have to know that you care before they care about what you know,” he said. Even in stable households, Rowland added, many of Webster’s students will be the first in their families to graduate high school. Tasks like visiting college campuses or filling out financial aid forms are going to be brand new for parents and students.
The bedrock of the partnership between the school administration and these nonprofit groups is an early warning system born out of the work of Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and director of Talent Development Secondary. The system uses attendance, behavior and course-grade data to identify ninth- and 10th-grade students who are at risk of dropping out. The goal is to provide them support services before they fall through the cracks. “These are kids,” said Balfanz, “whose out-of-school challenges are so great that if you don’t solve them it doesn’t matter how good the school is, they’re not going to stay.”
Every Monday, Webster principal Shelly Holman and her staff hold meetings with representatives from City Year, Communities In Schools and Talent Development Secondary. Together they review a list of students for whom the data indicates a dropout risk. Collectively, the team puts into place a plan to reach out to these students, find out what nonschool challenges they’re facing and make referrals to get the students and/or their families the resources they need.
Sharing data with outside organizations, let alone adopting feedback from adults who aren’t even under your employ isn’t business as usual for school officials. The partnership that’s developed at Webster requires a leap of faith from both the administration and the faculty. But Holman is quick to note the practical upside to bringing in outside partners. “Diplomas Now has given us the boots on the ground to work with these kids individually. We can take the load off of our teachers who are under the pressure of meeting the academic standards so that we aren’t a failure factory,” the principal said.
Bibiana Perez, a 16-year-old junior, credits her relationship with a City Year member for keeping her in school. “He was that person you could go to if you were having a bad day,” she said. “I was terrible in math. I had thought about giving up and just not coming to school anymore. At least once a week he would pull me out of math class and go over anything I didn’t understand. I would not have passed Geometry or Algebra II without him.”
Webster’s success, however, isn’t about outside groups coming in and magically solving a long-standing problem on their own. Shortly after she became principal in 2013, Holman instituted additional learning time during the school day by scheduling classes in 85-minute blocks, double the time allotted in other Tulsa schools. Cutting down on the time students spend in hallways moving between classes has gained an additional 20 minutes of instruction time per day, school officials estimate. The extended class periods also mean that students can earn a course credit in one semester rather than over a full school year. For high-performing students, that can mean beginning college a semester early. And those with an interest in vocational training can take advantage of several internships Webster provides once their graduation requirements have been fulfilled.
Holman and her staff have been dogged in their efforts not only to keep kids in school, but lure back the ones who got away. For the second year in a row, Holman and a team of teachers and administrators went door-to-door through the neighborhood in early September, tracking down kids who appeared on their enrollment list but hadn’t shown up. It’s not an easy task. Noting the community’s more transient population, assistant principal Ryan Buell said they rarely locate a student on the first attempt, and when their van pulls up at an address, with several officials piling out, they’re sometimes mistaken for law enforcement.
Last year, tracking down one missing student led them to an uncle and then a grandfather before finally getting a current address. “She was living with her boyfriend,” Buell said, “and working 30 hours a week supporting herself as a waitress.” She had missed so much time that she was almost a year behind her classmates. She said ‘Mr. Buell I can’t graduate.’ ” Taking advantage of the 85-minute class periods, Buell was able to create a schedule that got her the credits she needed to graduate in just two semesters. “She graduated that May with her 2017 class. Now she’s taking classes at Tulsa Community College.”
While success stories like that are heartening, Holman knows there is so much more to be done. She points to an attendance rate that is still not as high as they would like. “A lot of times we know where the kids are. They’re working or at home baby-sitting. We need to rethink our hours of the day in order to serve them.” Holman also noted that it’s not uncommon for the school to enroll students who’ve just been released from juvenile detention, yet “we don’t have the resources or the right processes in place a kid like that may need.”
That speaks less about Webster, education advocates say, than it does about unrealistic expectations placed on underfunded institutions. “The traditional American high school,” said Balfanz, “is based on the premise that 15 percent of kids need extra help, 15 percent need remediation and 70 percent will do fine if you give them a good teacher. In high-needs schools, it’s like 95 percent need the additional support. We concentrate our neediest kids in a subset of schools that weren’t designed for that level of need.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.