RALEIGH — Each May, Sanderson High principal Greg Decker sends a team of teachers out to the middle schools to test every rising ninth-grader slated to come to his school.
Last spring, 49 percent of his incoming freshmen tested well below grade level. Results showed most of those students had the math and reading skills of a fourth- or fifth-grader.
This is Decker’s fourth year as Sanderson’s principal, so the information didn’t surprise him. But he knew he had to be ready for these children when they came through his doors, because they are at risk for dropping out. Having data before the students ever step onto campus allows Decker and his team to be ready with appropriate interventions so they don’t waste any time. The approach has produced a 4 percent growth in the school’s graduation rate.
Almost all high schools struggle with this issue. In 2012, only 65.1 percent of Carroll Middle School eighth-graders were at grade level for math, and just 71.3 percent of West Millbrook Middle School eighth-graders were at grade level for reading. These Sanderson feeder school numbers are among the lowest scores for Wake County, but they are not unusual.
When Tim Simmons of the Wake Education Partnership heard about the successes at Sanderson, he decided to make Decker’s data-driven approach to dropout prevention the topic of the group’s third Excellence in Action program. The group’s series highlights approaches that are working in Wake County schools.
Last week, Simmons invited a mix of elected officials, school officials and business leaders to come to Sanderson to hear how the school has been able to help students succeed.
“State law says that if you are in ninth grade, you must take algebra and ninth-grade English,” Decker said. But it is difficult for students coming in at the fourth- or fifth-grade levels to be successful in those courses.
Decker explained that the first thing he did to address the problem was to shift the Sanderson culture. It is no longer “I teach, they are supposed to learn,” but “you are successful if all of your students learn.”
To create programs to support each student, Decker and his team allow the data to guide them. “We are trying to use more specific interventions instead of a shotgun approach,” he said.
Decker and intervention coordinator Michelle Gordon use many strategies when developing a program for each identified student. Last week’s presentation highlighted two software tools and a small classroom called the alternative learning community.
SuccessMaker, a software program that covers the entire K-8 curriculum, has proven effective at helping students recover the skills they didn’t pick up in elementary and middle school. Decker has invested heavily in computer labs and software licenses.
When a student logs on for the first time, explains teacher Jennifer Mann, the software assesses their ability and starts them at that level. Students with limited English skills might actually start at the kindergarten level. Twenty hours with the program equates to one full grade level. Students have scheduled access to the program during class and lunch, and they can use the lab after school. They can also access the program from home if they have Internet access.
Mann said ninth-grader Mu Puay Gay is a stellar example of what SuccessMaker can help a student accomplish. Gay came to the United States four years ago from Thailand. When he arrived at Sanderson last year, he had very limited English language skills. He spends every minute he can working with SuccessMaker. The requirement is 40 hours per year, but Gay logged more than 100 hours last year.
“He is now passing all of his classes in every content area,” Mann said. He even volunteers to help other students with their math assignments.
Students who are struggling to complete the classes they need to pass to graduate can recover credits by using a software program called NovaNET. The software is aligned with the North Carolina curriculum, so students can come to the NovaNET lab for one or more periods per day and learn the required material at their own pace.
Shaquan Marrero, a senior, was struggling with English. “English IV seems to be all about old English, so I couldn’t understand,” he said. Too much “thee” and “thou.” Marrero particularly enjoyed the “calm, comfortable environment” of the NovaNET lab. “It helped me get the credit that I need to graduate,” Marrero said. He will graduate on time in June.
Sophomore Trinity Whitson also uses the NovaNET lab. “I could do the work, but I had an attendance problem,” she said. Because she was able to finish world history in less than a semester, she has already moved on to English. “I can actually catch up,” she said.
Another option for students is a small classroom setting called the alternative learning community, or ALC. There are never more than a handful of students in the room with a full-time teacher, so they have fewer distractions and receive more individual attention. Students are assigned to the room as necessary – sometimes for a few days or weeks, sometimes for just one period per day. They bring whatever work they need to complete, and subject teachers cycle in as needed.
Junior Jaha Reeves was struggling with geometry, which could have derailed his graduation plans, so he was assigned to the ALC. Being in that environment was exactly what he needed. “My grade jumped up a lot,” he said. Now Reeves is set to graduate next December, a semester early.
Freshman Ben Johnson spent one period per day in the ALC for two months to finish a web page design class because he was struggling in the classroom setting. “My grades were dropping. As soon as I got in Ms. Gordon’s room, my grades skyrocketed again.”
The latest WCPSS high school graduation rate report says that in 2011-12, Wake County had a four-year graduation rate of 80.6 percent; North Carolina’s rate was 80.4 percent. Nationally, North Carolina ranks in the middle of the pack for graduation rates. Sanderson was at 78.6 percent last year.
Decker does not claim to have all of the answers.
“We are still neophytes in this journey,” he said. But he is tracking the data, and he sees improvement and successes. “Even though it is not great, it is moving in the right direction.”
Decker’s goal is a 100-percent graduation rate.