When the state recently released 2015/16 graduation rates, Cleveland City Schools was more than pleased to see it had earned a solid 90%, up 4% from the previous year. Currently, the state of Tennessee is graduating 88.5% (up 1%) and nationally 83.2% (up 0.9%). The system’s rise this year was four times the state and national growth rates, placing the system at the long-held 90% threshold the state and nation use as an indicator of success when it comes to graduating students.
In the inaugural year of the system’s hybrid alternative school, the F.I. Denning Center of Technology & Careers, the results of more targeted and specific interventions are definitely paying off. “Our partnership with Lee University to secure tutors and the addition of a Career & Technical Education teacher have had a real impact in motivating students to work toward a diploma while at the same time looking to post-secondary opportunities,” says a proud Barbara Ector, Principal of the Denning Center. The Denning Center’s graduation rate was combined with Cleveland High School to calculate the district’s 90% average.
Over at Cleveland High School, the school’s Climb Time (renamed from Connections last year) has proven to be effective at creating positive relationships with students to reinforce the importance of graduation. Athena Davis, English Teacher at CHS, explains it this way, “When students feel safe, valued, and cared for, they will want to come to school. And when students are in school, we have won half the battle. The Connections program was essential in providing a non-adversarial advocate for each student within the walls of this building.” Not all the credit can go to efforts at the two secondary schools. Becky Guthrie, Senior Counselor at Cleveland High School sees the increase as a payoff from a recent shift to system-wide buy-in. “Post-secondary plans and preparation no longer start during a student’s senior year, and the celebration of success doesn’t stay there either. From career education programs in elementary schools to CTE classes and career inventories in middle school, students walk into 9th grade seeing ‘earning a diploma’ as a given, focusing on what lies beyond instead. It all comes full circle when seniors donning caps and gowns visit their elementary or middle school, inspiring the next generation of CCS graduates.” Celebrating success and equipping students for the world beyond is always an important part of the equation as Cleveland High School Principal Autumn O’Bryan explains, “The number one thing we can give our students is a high school diploma. From there, students’ options truly are limitless. Cleveland High School is committed to develop programs that prepare students for life after they leave Raider Drive. I am so proud of our students and staff for their relentless work toward the pursuit of a high school diploma for all of our students.”
District support for the schools has been crucial as well. It may be surprising to some that improving graduation rate isn’t always about the students in our buildings, but rather about those who may be long gone. For the past few years, any student moving out of the district is automatically counted as a dropout unless proof of enrollment at another school can be proven with documentation from a specific list provided by the state. This can prove extremely difficult when students ‘disappear’ to other states or even out of the country, according to Michael Kahrs, Supervisor of Data & Assessment. “I’m so proud of the CHS and Denning Center Counseling and Front Office staff that track down verification for hundreds of transfers each year to ensure that the schools’ hard work is not diminished by a penalty for a student who has moved and can’t be found. We always want our number to reflect the true work being done by our educators, parents, and students, and not some broken paper trail.”