For the past 15 years our school has had a 100% graduation rate. I am extremely proud of our students and teachers for making this happen. I have been asked, on several occasions, how the school has come to achieve this. In part, the answer lies within the culture and tradition of “hard work” that the community has embraced. One of my favorite school archives is a newspaper advertisement from 1932 which declares: “St. Patrick School….built and equipped without debt by the pennies of the working class.” However, to attribute this successful graduation rate only to “hard work” would be grossly inadequate.
A deeper look would show that the school has adopted some systemic (rooted in best educational practice) and strategic initiatives that have enabled the success of all our students. Before I list a few of these initiatives, let tell you some important information about our school and community:
We are a Catholic high school of 500 students. Enrollment into the school is entirely based on belonging to a Catholic denomination (we also enroll and small percentage of non-Catholic students). The school does not administer an “entrance exam” nor does it screen for academic ability. Recent demographic information provided
by Statistic Canada puts the average wage of families in our catchment at $58,000 annually. Further demographic data indicates that over 50% of parent community does not have English as their first language.
Now on to a summary of our systems and strategies:
Pyramid of Intervention
We work hard to answer the question: “What happens when a student is not learning”. This model of school improvement is rooted in the PLC model popularized by Richard Dufour and others. (Response to Intervention is another example). As a school community we constantly adjust our model to better meet our needs (See diagram) and keep all stakeholders focused on our task. see “Whatever it Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker & Karhanek)
Once students enroll in our school we collect as much student data as possible, through test scores, teacher observations and parent feedback. Once analyzed and collated, the findings are shared with teachers and parents so that appropriate, classroom level interventions can be implemented for the students. Recently, given our demographics, the school has embarked on piloting a literacy program that will give us more data on the specific literacy skills of our students and provide us with more focused interventions.
Over the past four years the school has amended its assessment and grading practices. Some of these reforms have include an “open grade book policy” where terms are no longer averaged (acknowledging that learning is process over time), the elimination of teachers giving indiscriminate zero’s for incomplete work (students must now do the work!). Ken O’Connor and Doug Reeves are two of my favorite researchers in this area. Although I see myself as a passionate advocate for grading reform in schools, another BC educator (principal) you may want to follow is Cale Birke (@birklearns). You’ll love his passion on this topic.
We begin with the premise that a student’s success in the classroom begins and ends with the quality of instruction in that class. No grading policy, system of intervention, timetable has a bigger impact on student success than the quality instruction in the classroom.
With this premise in mind, the school is constantly looking for ways to support teachers in their learning and delivery of best practice. Some of the teaching and learning supports we provide for our teachers include:
a. Restructuring of staff meeting format and rationale. Teams of teachers now meet every Wednesday morning to address goals related to student learning (some great work is being accomplished in these learning teams).
b. Providing teachers with easily accessible and informative communication tools (beyond report cards) to communicate with parents and students. Constant (every 3-4 week communication is expected on students who are at risk (No surprises here!)
c. Academic Advisors for each grade level provide another level of support for students, teachers and parents when dealing with academic issues.
d. Teacher/Department Tutorials. Each department in school hosts weekly tutorial sessions for students who require extra-help in content specific areas.
e. Peer Tutors. This is essentially the idea of “students helping students” in scheduled tutoring sessions, supervised by a teacher. This has proven to be highly successful over the years!
f. Homework Club. This intervention has been instituted to address students who have not responded to teacher interventions related to work habits. This is moderated and regulated by the school’s administration. Teachers nominate students to the administration only after they can demonstrate that they have tried some interventions themselves. The obvious caution with this intervention is that students who are sent to homework club are there only to address work habit issues. Students with learning difficulties are redirected back to the teacher for extra-tutorials or to the Learning Assistance Centre if required. This has been effective, but does require careful attention and moderating. (We learned the hard way, and in many ways are still figuring it out!)
Other school wide support systems:
Weekly & Monthly Student Services Meetings
Teachers, advisors, counselor and administrators meet on a regular basis to address issues related to students who are not learning. Students are identified and interventions implemented.
Students lead busy lives. Like most schools, our school is a busy place. In acknowledging this, the school has moved to a timetable that allows for a daily 30 minute block of supervised “study time” for students. This is an opportunity for students to get their work done (or at least get a good start on it) before they go home.
Careful scheduling of students
All scheduling of students is closely monitored by the school’s administration, with the assistance of the academic advisors and cooperation to students and parents. Our goal is to schedule students for success (graduation and beyond). We frequently need to have meaningful conversations with students and parents about “choosing courses for success”. Our staff spends a lot of time ensuring that schedules reflect a balance between students’ needs, strengths and future dreams! Doug Reeves, in his book Leading Change quotes and principal from Indiana on this topic: “students can make a lot of choices, but we won’t let them choose to fail”. (Reeves, Leading Change in Your School, 2009)
A Culture of Commitment
It is inspiring to work in a culture where all the adults (teaching staff, support staff, office staff, etc.) have an unwavering commitment to ensuring that all students succeed. This level of commitment has spilled over and permeated the psyche of our students. The students accept as truth, that they will graduate from high school.
I have listed some of the factors which contribute to our success as a school. However, every journey is different. Each student will take a different path. Some will find it easier than others. The constant will be the level of commitment and care from the adults in their lives!
An example from few years ago illustrates this well:
It’s the morning of the Grade 12 English Provincial Exam. The school received a call from a desperate mother in tears over the fact that her Grade 12 daughter was unwilling to come to school to write her exam. For various reasons the student was choosing to fail. Given our relationship with the family we decided to take the extraordinary step and go to the home. My two Vice Principals arrived at the home to a grateful mother and a defiant child. After careful mediation and lots of tears, the VP’s were successful in persuading the student to come to school. Once at school, the student decided to sit in the exam but not write a thing. She failed English 12 and thus did not graduate in June.
At initial glance, this story might be perceived as a failure (the student didn’t graduate) however it does serve to illustrate this culture of commitment and “going the extra mile” that I mention above. (It also speaks to the importance of having trusting and authentic relationship with parents and families – but that’s another post).
The story does have happy ending in relation to the student graduating – she chose, in August, to write her exam. She passed and graduated.
I am not sure what motivated her to go back and write. Regardless, on that June morning the student learned that she had a school community that was committed to her well-being and academic success!