In the Classroom

‘They made sure I didn’t give up’: How an Indianapolis high school raised graduation rates

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students outside Arsenal Technical High School.

The sprawling campus of Arsenal Technical High School is an easy place to get lost. But if the rising graduation rate is an indicator, fewer seniors are falling through the cracks.

Two years ago, one in three students wasn’t graduating at the high school, which enrolls nearly 2,000. But educators at the largest high school in Indianapolis Public Schools have led a campaign to increase the number of seniors earning diplomas and boost the school’s graduation rate over the last two years.

And it’s paying off. Since 2015, the rate has risen by more than 15 percentage points, and last year 82 percent of the cohort graduated.

The impact of the improvements also extended beyond the school grounds. Arsenal helped push up graduation rates across the district to about 83 percent. The increasing graduation rate helped raise the school’s state letter grade to a C. More importantly, the gains meant an increase in the number of students earning diplomas, which will likely help them continue to college or earn better wages.

To be sure, high school graduation rates have improved across the country in recent years, in part because of a sustained effort to reduce dropouts. But Arsenal’s comprehensive approach to the problem could serve as something of a blueprint for other schools.

Their success has been so rapid that the question facing Arsenal staff now is whether they will be able to maintain the gains they have made — and if they can continue improving the graduation rate in the face of dramatic changes at the school and new challenges on the horizon.

The effort to improve graduation rates at Arsenal began two years ago, and was felt across the school, said Judy Carlile, the data and testing coordinator. Teachers were encouraged to build relationships with students and make sure they passed classes and earned credits.

Meanwhile, an eight-person graduation team focused on students who were at risk. When students had problems such as credit shortages, attendance problems, and failing grades, they received extra attention. And the team tracked down students who had stopped coming to school.

“There were a lot of kids who had just kind of fallen between the cracks,” said Carlile. “We just needed to bring them back together and say, ‘how can we get you where you need to go?’ ”

Graduation data revealed some obvious ways to improve. For example, the school had about five students a year who didn’t graduate because they failed gym, said Ross Boushehry, who is a social worker in his sixth year at Arsenal.

The school started offering ways for students to make up work, and they pushed them to get gym done in their first years of high school.

“We just thought to ourselves, this is ridiculous,” said Boushehry. “We have other, bigger issues to solve.”

Many of the students at Arsenal face serious barriers on their way to graduation. Last year, about 150 students were homeless, state data reported. Many students come to the school in their senior year with far fewer credits than they need to graduate.

Some seniors with credit shortages can make up the ground with options such as summer school or online courses. For others, the best option might be a program such as adult high school or job training, said Boushehry.

As graduation rates have risen across the country, experts have raised concerns that they may be inflated and graduates may not be prepared for college and careers. At Arsenal, there is mixed data on whether academic gains are on track with the graduation rates. The test that seniors take to graduate recently changed, and Arsenal has only seen a slight improvement.

In 2016, there was a jump in the number of students who received waivers to graduate without passing the state test. But in 2017 the graduation rate continued to rise while the waiver rate held steady.

Some students, like Breeasia Potter, had the academic skills to graduate but needed support. For most of high school, Potter had done well, racking up extra credits and taking honors classes. But in her senior year, life at home became so difficult, Potter said, that she thought she might drop out.

The staff at Arsenal kept her going, she said. Her counselor met with her every month, and when she missed school, one of her teachers would text her. She is now a student at Ivy Tech Community College with plans to become a doctor.

“I was in such a bad place that I honestly wanted to give up, and they made sure I didn’t give up,” Potter said. “I didn’t feel lost at all. I felt important at all times.”

The effort to improve Arsenal’s graduation rate also included a lot of work tracking down students who stopped coming to school but are still counted as part of the senior class.

The graduation team scoured the internet for students who had moved and hunted down records to show they were enrolled in an out-of-state school. They made home visits, spoke to their friends, and looked for them on social media.

“It’s detective work all the way,” said Melody Lundsford, the school registrar.

Yet for all that was accomplished over the last two years, it’s unclear whether the successes will be sustainable in the coming years.

Arsenal is changing. The school will likely see an influx of students in the fall, after the district closes three other high schools. Two leaders that spearheaded the effort to improve graduation rates at the school are no longer with the district. The graduation coach, Stephanie Weddle, left last summer. And the former principal Julie Bakehorn, who made increasing the schools graduation rate a top priority, took a job with the Tindley charter network last year after she was abruptly replaced as head of Arsenal.

The state is also in the midst of changing graduation requirements for students, and it could be increasingly challenging for the school to meet the standards. The Indiana State Board of Education approved controversial new “graduation pathways” in December that would add more to what students must do to graduate. Currently, lawmakers are tweaking the pathways system, proposing changes that could also make it more difficult for students to get waivers from the new requirements.

Given the potential changes to state guidelines, their jobs are going to be harder, said Carlile. But the graduation team will stay focused.

“We all know that we are here for the kids,” she said. “We want to put them in the best possible situation as they start to build their future.”

How I Teach

This Memphis teacher went viral for holding ‘class’ on Facebook Live during a snow day

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Candous Brown teaches one of her 12th-grade English classes at Raleigh-Egypt High School. Brown has been teaching in Memphis for 10 years.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When a week of snow days brought Candous Brown’s 12th-grade English class to a wintry halt, her students convinced her to take her lesson live on Facebook.

So wearing pajamas and with occasional photobombs by her 10-year-old son, Brown sat down at her laptop and convened an impromptu class with about 40 students from Raleigh-Egypt High School in Memphis. Some participants were actually previous students who decided to drop in.

“I’m so proud of y’all for actually wanting to do this,” she said at the outset, complimenting her students for their resourcefulness, ingenuity, and good use of technology.

The 33-year-old teacher has a knack for engaging her students where they are. That means frequently tapping into their love of music to grow their passion for literature.

“Why wouldn’t we focus on that?” she asks rhetorically.

During Black History Month, for instance, Brown pairs excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait” with freedom songs from the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution.”

“I want them to know how music was utilized during the civil rights movement,” she said. “ In many instances, it was the thing that kept people motivated and unified.”

Chalkbeat spoke recently with Brown about teaching on Facebook Live and how she builds relationships with her students every day. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

I have always enjoyed literature and reading so it fit that I would be an English teacher.  As a student, my teachers would use me as a peer tutor.  I assisted classmates with their assignments and they would tell me I’d make a great teacher.  Of course, I would reject the idea; but looking back on it, they were leading me in the right direction.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

I love teaching anything Shakespeare. But more recently, my favorite lesson has been to teach “The Hero’s Journey.” We were reading Beowulf and I wanted the students to trace Beowulf’s journey into the hero that we know him to be in today’s culture. When I first start the unit, I have them think of heros within their own lives. Or times when they felt like they were the hero in a situation. I want them to be able to connect this hero’s journey to themselves.  We read the text, participated in class discussion, did an analytical comparison of the movie and the text.  The students loved it.

Recently, you received national attention for holding class via Facebook Live during a snow day. Why was it important to make instructional time happen during that long break? How do you instill excitement for learning in your students?

That was actually my very first time going live. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to say something foolish and have the entire virtual world see my flub. I got up that morning, planned for some anticipated misconceptions, and went for it.

My students were the ones who set everything up. They asked if I’d be willing to do the lesson and, of course, I couldn’t say no when they were willing to do the work. I told them about my apprehensions and then one student used a phrase that I tell them when they are afraid to try something new: “First time for everything.” At that moment, I knew I had to do it. It was important to make it happen because they wanted it to happen. I always tell them that they cannot wait to be within the confines of a school to learn.

It pleased my soul that they were still attempting to do the work without me and that they trusted me enough to reach out. I think when they see me get excited or passionate about certain topics, it resonates with them.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

Students tend to shut down when they don’t understand a lesson. Then, they state the infamous sentence: “I don’t get it.” I force them to think about the lesson and target the source of confusion. They have to be able to explain the problem to me before I help them. More often than not, their own explanation of the misconception helps them figure out the issue on their own. Also, they know that I am a last resort.  They will ask a peer or neighbor before they ask me because they know I will make them explain everything they know before I will help. It forces them to explore their own understanding of the concept.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I usually don’t have to say or do much. My facial expressions do the talking for me.  Once the kids see my face, they tell each other to get it together before I start fussing.  Apparently, the last thing they want to hear from me is fussing.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Brown says her facial expressions can do the talking for her when her students get off track.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?

At the beginning of the school term, my students complete an “Interest Survey.” I participate with them and allow them to ask me questions. I figure if I’m asking them questions about their lives outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to ask the same of me, within reason. When the surveys are done, I file them. No one will see their answers but me. When appropriate, I incorporate things I learn about them into the lessons to make them more relatable. In that way, they know that I am paying attention and it opens the floor to them so that they know I am trustworthy and truly have their best interest at heart. I never demean them for the things they reveal and I don’t shy away from tough conversations. My door stays open to them unless I’m grading or planning.

What’s the best advice you ever received as a teacher?

To remember why I’m in the classroom. Sometimes, the classroom can be daunting and overwhelming. I have my students, I’m the single mother of a 10-year-old son and, on top of that, I’m working toward a master’s degree. I could easily get discouraged. But if I remember why I’m there, it becomes manageable. I am there to serve my students. I am there to lead my students. Those two things are never lost upon me.

school rules

Arkansas passed a law banning suspensions for truancy. Then it was largely ignored.

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

What if an education law passed, but nobody followed it?

That appears to be the bizarre situation in Arkansas, which in 2013 enacted a straightforward law banning out-of-school suspensions for truancy.

But three years later, nearly 1,100 students were still suspended for not showing up to school. Many Arkansas schools were simply not complying with the law, according to a new study.

What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but a communication breakdown may be to blame. The study notes that schools didn’t hear explicitly from the Arkansas Department of Education about the new law until January 2017.

The state disputes this — kind of — pointing to 2014 and 2015 memos, though neither actually mentions the rule change or acceptable penalties for truancy. A department spokesperson said the memos’ “regulatory authority” include the law banning suspensions.

“While [the department] does not track every phone call or correspondence, in general we have ongoing communication with educators, schools, districts and education service cooperatives,” said the spokesperson, Kimberly Friedman.

What’s clear is that only some Arkansas schools changed their practices. In the 2012-13 school year, about 14 percent of truancy cases resulted in out-of-school suspensions, and by 2015-16 that had dipped to 9 percent. It’s not clear whether that drop was due to the law.

(Notably, nearly 2 percent of truancy cases in 2015-16 resulted in corporal punishment, which remains legal in Arkansas public schools despite efforts by the federal government to eliminate the practice.)

The study, which was published last week in the peer-reviewed Peabody Journal of Education, also found that schools serving more students of color were less likely to have followed the law.

Schools with 10 percent more black students than average were about 5 percentage points less likely to eliminate suspensions for truancy. That finding underscores concerns from discipline reform advocates about the disproportionate effect suspensions have on students of color.

“The types of schools that the state was likely intending to impact … were also the types of schools that failed to comply,” researcher Kaitlin Anderson of Michigan State University wrote.

Although pointing to an outlier case, the paper highlights a key challenge of changing school discipline rules: laws and mandates are no guarantee of real change. That’s especially true if educators don’t believe in the changes, schools aren’t given the resources to change, there’s no enforcement of new guidelines — or if schools don’t know that rules have changed at all.

“You might expect [suspensions for truancy] to go down to 0 percent, but that would be if all schools knew about the law, were able to comply with the law, and wanted to comply with the law,” said Anderson.

It’s not the first study to highlight the challenges of instituting, and tracking, school discipline changes. After Philadelphia banned suspensions for certain lower-level offenses, more than three-quarters of schools did not fully comply, another recent paper found. In Washington, D.C., an investigation found that some schools simply didn’t report all out-of-school suspensions amid the district’s efforts to cut down on exclusionary discipline.

In other cases, though, policy changes are leading to fewer suspensions, at least according to official numbers. Los Angeles and New York City, for instance, have reported substantial drops in out-of-school suspensions in recent years.

A slide from research presented to the Arkansas Board of Education in February 2016. ISS refers to in-school suspensions, and OSS refers to out-of-school suspension.

In Arkansas, the back and forth over the new findings began in February 2016, when the researchers presented preliminary findings to the Arkansas State Board of Education. They reminded board members that suspensions for truancy were illegal and noted that “over 100 districts were still doing this as of 2014–15.”

Nearly a year later, in January 2017, the state commissioner of education issued a brief memo, which said that “State Board members requested the department remind districts” of the ban.

Friedman said there wasn’t data on whether schools are complying with the law this year, since schools don’t submit discipline reports to the state until June.

Arkansas now has another chance to tackle the challenge of implementing a new discipline policy. Just last year, the state passed a law prohibiting most out-of-school suspensions in in elementary school.

Anderson said that it makes sense for state leaders to engage local district and school officials more when trying to change how schools do business. “Having some of those conversations is going to be more productive in the long run rather than trying to just set a hand-offs, high-level policy,” she said.