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An Overnight Miracle, Seven Years in the Making: A Conversation with Everett School District Chief Academic Officer Terry Edwards

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Seven years ago, Washington’s Everett School District awoke to a harsh reality. A change in how the state calculated graduation rates revealed that only 53% of the district’s students graduated on-time. Officials were shocked and embarrassed. They sprang into action.

Today, Everett’s on-time graduation rate is just under 84%. Its extended graduation rate is just over 90%. And the improvement has occurred across the board, in all ethnic groups and special populations.

To what do they credit their success? Getting a group of committed adults focused on the problem and meeting regularly to try to solve it. And they also moved from numbers to names—getting personal about who is not on track to graduate and what they can do about it. Everett’s Chief Academic Officer Terry Edwards recently told us more.

Public School Insights: Your district has recently gotten some press because of its improved graduation rates. Could you tell me a bit about the success you have had?

Edwards: It is something that I call “An overnight wonder that took seven years to get here.”

About seven years ago, in 2003-2004, the state of Washington changed how it calculated graduation rates. It moved from looking at the number of graduates in the senior class plus those who dropped out over the past four years to a cohort model, the on-time model that the federal government has adopted. This model looks at the number of kids who enter in ninth grade and the number who graduate four years later.

When we converted to that model, our district’s graduation rate was 53%. That was very hard for Everett to accept, because we had always believed that we were a very good school district and doing a good job. 53% was shocking and embarrassing. And it did not seem to follow what we perceived as reality. We did not see hundreds of children standing around on street corners in town.

We began reviewing our data and realized that maybe things were not as rosy as we had believed that they were. And while maybe there were some problems with data and reporting, there was also plenty of room for improvement.

In 2003 we began what we call the “On-Time Graduation Committee.” We have an ongoing group that includes every high school principal and all of the special ed and ELL categorical administrators in the district. It meets every week and focuses on graduation. Over time our on-time graduation rate has risen to just short of 84%. And more importantly for us, our extended graduation rate is just over 90%.

Public School Insights: By that do you mean students who graduate within five or six years?

Edwards: That is right. Our school board was really clear that while on-time graduation is important, what is even more important is that a student graduates. They did not care if it took five years or six years or however long, but every student who was part of our system needed to get a high school diploma. And we have pushed extended graduation hard, because we know some kids are going to take a little longer than others. We have really worked to make sure every kid gets a diploma.

Public School Insights: Tell me in a little more detail the things you did that you think allowed you to make these gains.

Edwards: We started the process by forming a task force. Its whole purpose was to say, “Where are we really at? Are the numbers correct? What should we be doing?” We met every few weeks for about six months to just try to learn everything that we could about what was happening with our students and graduation. Out of that came the recommendation to have an ongoing committee focused on the issue. And while we have tried a lot of different strategies to help kids graduate, the thing I come back to as being the most important is getting a group of committed adults focused on the problem and meeting regularly to figure out, what do we need to do next?

When I say that our success is an overnight sensation that took seven years…There have been some things that people point to, and say “That is what did it.” But I do not think there is any silver bullet. A whole bunch of changes have been made. And people can always look at the things that we say worked for us, but they do not look at the ten other things that we threw out. When something did not work we had to move on to the next thing.

We focused a lot in the early years on data. And on making sure that our reporting was correct and that people understood exactly what the requirements to graduate were and where different kids in the system were in light of those requirements. So early on we developed a “Graduation Trajectory.” It is really a simple thing. When kids start ninth grade, they have zero credits. Four years later they need 22 credits to graduate. If you draw a straight line between those two numbers, you can track how many credits a second semester junior needs to be on track to graduate. So it’s a simple way for us to say, “Who is on track to graduate, and who is not?” And then for those kids who aren’t, we can look at who are they, what they are missing, and how we can go about getting it for them.

It was a movement from a number to a name. 53% or 65% really did not mean a lot to teachers and people in the system. So for every number we provide, we also provide a name. So, “Your graduation rate is 83%. That means 17% of your kids are not graduating, or are not on track to graduate. Here are their names. Here are their credits. Here are the classes they need.” We use our data systems to go down to the individual level and then provide that information to the people in the buildings.

Another thing that people point to a lot, and that has worked well for us, is that we created a new position. We have always had school counselors. Now, in addition, we have what we call “Success Coordinators.” Their whole job is to take the lists of personalized data and follow up with kids. That is actually a recommendation that came out of the early task force work. They said, “What we need is a school mom, a nag who will be after these kids.”

Success Coordinators are classified employees. They work through the counseling office. They will go out and find a kid and say, “You need US history. You failed that last year.” They get the kids hooked up to the counselor and registered in the classes they need. Then they follow up to make sure the homework is coming in and the work is getting done that will help that kid pass the class.

We now have two Success Coordinators working in each of our comprehensive high schools and one in our alternative school. They just keep working the lists. It is a lot of legwork, following up. And counselors always had a hard time with that, because they had 500 or 600 kids on their caseload. These folks only focus on those kids who are in trouble for graduation. They are a liaison between the kids who struggle and the counselor.

Public School Insights: Is this an expensive strategy? So much of it has to do with personalization, which is labor-intensive.

Edwards: As classified staff, a Success Coordinator costs about 40% of what a counselor costs. But it is expensive. And that is a concern. We, like everyone else in the country, are having budget problems. But we have had such success with these folks that our principals keep pushing them to the end of the cut line.

It probably costs us around $110,000 a year per high school to provide Success Coordinators. But we think it is cheap in the long run, because they are pushing these kids through to graduation. And we have estimated that when a kid fails a class and has to retake it, it costs us around $400-$500 per class. So we actually think that we save money.

Public School Insights: In reviewing your data, did you come to any conclusions as to why kids get on the trajectory to dropout?

Edwards: We spend a bunch of time studying failure. And when you look at your system that way, trying to understand the failures that are in your system, you come up with some really interesting things.

You come up with certain classes that kids have a hard time with, that have a higher failure rate than other classes. Some of those are understandable. Ninth grade algebra is a tough class for a lot of kids, and you can have a high failure rate. But then other classes turn up and make you wonder, what is going on?

We have a PE class in some of our high schools called “Walking.” It is related to fitness. We have a large Muslim community that did not want to suit up for PE, so to accommodate them we developed this class, which became fairly popular with kids. The problem is that we were having a 30% to 40% failure rate in walking. It turned out it was due to grading practices. Kids missed too many days or did not walk enough laps.

When we find those oddities we can go back and review the class—the curriculum, the expectations, the grading practices. And we can work with the staff on what are we really trying to accomplish in the class. Then maybe we can adjust the grading practices.

The other thing that we have done that is interesting is…You know, everyone in education can fall prey to prejudice and myths. One of the myths we had was that kids who fail classes do not come to school and have parents who do not care. Or they are using drugs and drinking. But we started looking at, who is failing classes?

We did a distribution of the kids who fail. We found that 40% of all of the kids failing a class fail only one class. That means they’re successful five times a day. So we shared that back with the staff. It is not about the drug-impacted, pierced, tattooed stereotype kid. It is about John average kid who is having trouble only in your class.

We came up with what we call a “one ‘F’ letter.” Each week the teachers get a list of kids who are failing only their class. The idea is that if this kid is successful everywhere else, is there something that is going on in your class with them? Is there something else that you can do? Can you talk to the other teachers who have this kid to see how to help that kid to do better in your class, so that they do not fail that one class?

When we started this, some of our principals were really concerned because the greater need is the kid failing six classes. One of our principals actually devoted all the extra resources we provided to the six “F” kids in the school. Well meaning, but the problem is that by the end of the semester, the kids that he targeted had mostly dropped out. The schools that targeted the kids who were at the one “F” level ended up reducing the number of one “F” kids by about 25%.

And we noticed that the number of two “F” kids decreased, too. And even the number of six “F” kids decreased at those schools. What we found is that when you emphasize better follow-up, the teachers were not just following up with the one “F” kids; they started to do it with all kids, and then all kids started to improve. So really focusing on the top helped improve the bottom.

We've been providing that feedback to teachers for several years. Our goal each year is to reduce our “F” rate by 25%. It is getting harder and harder because the rate is getting so low. But we continue to push that the most economical way, and the way that is best for kids, to improve graduation rates is by having kids pass a class the first time they are in it, so they don’t have to retake it or do summer school or credit recovery.

Public School Insights: And when teachers have the data, they can become much more attuned to the personal needs of their students.

Edwards: Exactly. That is the whole numbers-to-names, personalization piece. They know who is in trouble, and they know exactly where they are.

Another thing we do is that we have a program that goes into our electronic grade books and pulls the kids who are within so many percentage points of passing a class. And we give a list of kids within 5% of passing to the teacher, a list of kids the teacher could be working with to help them over the hump.

We use the bucket analogy a lot. You have to keep moving kids out of the bucket so that you have the resources and time to deal with the kids who have higher and higher needs. If you spend all your time working intensely with kids who really just need to retake a test or quiz or turn a couple of assignments in, you do not have time for kids who need more help in moving to the standard. It is about getting the kids through, helping them get across that line.

Public School Insights: Do you have a sense of how all this has impacted the district’s college-going rate?

Edwards: That is a great question. We just bought into the National Student Clearinghouse database. Just within the last three or four weeks we got our first set of reports. In 2004, we had around a 17% college-going rate. In 2009, five years later, we had a 54% college-going rate. Though 54% still seems low to me.

Public School Insights: But that is a tremendous improvement!

Edwards: Yes. And our next step, because now we're getting into the low 90s with our high school completion rate, is shifting our focus to, how do we help kids take the next step to college?

We just completed a grant application with our community college. We want to apply the same Success Coordinator and tracking ideas in the community college. And we are looking at developing early college and dual credit programs so that we can expand our college in the high school programs, so kids can see that they can earn college credit and transition into the community college. That they can take that next step. So that is what we see as our big push over the next three years.

Public School Insights: Are there are any questions I should have asked you, but did not?

Edwards: You could have asked about diversity. About 70% of the kids in our district are Caucasian. The rest are different ethnic groups. And we have had increases in graduation rates across all ethnic groups and across the special populations. Our ELL kids are doing better. Our special Ed kids are doing better. And a real focus for us has been our low-income students. What I think is happening with them is that as we personalize and make sure they are connected and somebody's following up with them, they are doing better.

So this is not an improvement that has been isolated in one part of the population. That is important to us. That is part of our strategic plan. We have strategic plan goals to reduce the number of non-graduates in each different ethnic group by 10% a year.

Also, something else we have found is a big change in our enrollment patterns in challenging courses. We went from around 32 AP tests taken in the district six or seven years ago to just around 800 now. The number of college in the high school credits has quadrupled over that time. And the number of kids taking pre-calculus, calculus or AP statistics has gone up five to six times what it was five years ago. So kids are doing more work, taking more challenging classes and graduating at higher levels. It has been great all across the board.