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.”

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”

This Air Force veteran switched to teaching, but his military mindset still comes in handy

PHOTO: Ariel Skelley | Getty Images

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Daniel Ganoza spent years in the U.S. Air Force before becoming a science teacher at Woodland Park High School west of Colorado Springs. Despite the career switch, he found the military mindset useful in the classroom.

“In the Air Force everyone is valuable to the mission,” he said. “You have no choice in training them the best you can. The mission depends on it and your reputation as a leader depends on your folks knowing their job.”

Ganoza, who won the 2018 Secondary Excellence in Teaching award from the Colorado Association of Science Teachers, talked about how the military mentality motivates students, why environmental science is so important for the current generation, and how vaping and marijuana are affecting his school.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

PHOTO: Daniel Ganoza
Daniel Ganoza, right, flying with Iraqi troops on a C-130 aircraft, during his Air Force career.

I had selfish reasons for wanting to be a teacher. When I was in the Air Force I had been away from home so much. My oldest two daughters were born and graduated high school while I was still in the military and I’m afraid I missed much of their growing up.

But my youngest child, my son, was starting high school as I was set to leave the military. What a better way for me to try to connect with my son than to be a teacher at his school, to have him and his friends in class, and to coach their sports teams? And it worked. For my first four years of teaching my son was a student in my school. He graduated last year.

How has your experience in the Air Force shaped your approach to teaching?

Everyone in the Air Force was necessary to complete the mission and that is the same mindset I try to bring to the classroom. In the military, every person had value and their success influenced your success. If they failed, it made things harder on the whole organization.

Unfortunately, some kids fail my class and some kids drop out of school. But if I treat my students as if they are one of my troops in the military — if they feel like they are important to me and that I need them to do well, if they feel like my success depends on their success, if they feel like there is something unique and special about them that makes them valuable to me — then maybe for some kids that’s the difference it takes.

How do you get to know your students?

PHOTO: Daniel Ganoza
Teacher Daniel Ganoza, first row on left, with his students during their annual trip to Arches National Park.

We all get to know our students in the classroom. But those students I know the most are those students I see outside of the classroom. Whether it be weekend field trips or optional Saturday trainings or even the high school soccer and basketball teams I coach, those kids are the ones I get to know the best.

I suppose we all put in our time during the duty day, but when kids see you outside of those prescribed hours, when kids know you don’t have to be there, they appreciate that and let their guard down a little.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

Not so much a favorite lesson, but my favorite course to teach is environmental science. To be honest, I don’t think I thought about environmental issues during my most of my life. But now that I teach it, the subject is everywhere.

There are some really life-altering environmental decisions that the generation of kids I teach is going to have to make someday (thanks to my generation and past generations). Without being too much of an alarmist, I need to make them aware. This is about as deep into math as I get. Scientists say the earth has enough resources for 10 billion to 12 billion people, and we are at around 7.5 billion now. We are adding 1 million people to our planet every five days.

We reach capacity when kids in this generation are in their prime. I don’t know the answer, but these kids are going to have to figure it out. I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist — that has had negative connotations most of my life. But I do find this topic fascinating, I appreciate the work that environmental scientists do, and I’m nervous about potential environmental outcomes if we as a people are not careful.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

Someone told me once, “Be like a duck — calm above the water while paddling frantically below.” I pretend that nothing rattles me or makes me feel helpless, although secretly there are many things that would — missing my notes for the day, my overhead projector, my thumb drive with my lesson plans, my student aides who help me in so many ways, and a functioning printer and copier. Oh yeah, and Coke Zero Vanilla.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Vaping. Our school is waging a war against vaping. The kids just don’t seem to understand how bad it is for you. It is so easy for them to get it in the community and then they bring it to school and some of them get caught and it just doesn’t register that vaping is bad.

Also marijuana. I have a few kids in class that reek of marijuana — because their parents smoke it legally in their homes or illegally in their cars. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that these students are not smoking it, but if they’re surrounded by marijuana fumes at home, it can’t be good. And their grades and motivation usually reflect it.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years ago I was a member of our school’s attendance committee. If a student has 13 or more absences in a class in a semester they automatically fail that class (regardless of their grade) unless they submit an appeal to the attendance committee. Unless there is something medical going on, appeals are almost always rejected.

In one case, a young lady gave an appeal — she was a senior and needed the credits to graduate, but had been absent a considerable amount of time. Although there was nothing extraordinary about her story, we showed a little grace and we allowed her to graduate. I’m not sure why, it just felt right.

Recently, I ran into her in our little town where she was working at a Sonic restaurant. She remembered that I was part of the decision to allow her to graduate. She was very grateful and seemed excited to see me. She told me that she got pregnant toward the end of her senior year, but didn’t know it until after graduation. She is married now, her baby is healthy, and she is working hard to try to make ends meet. She’ll be fine, but she has a tough road in front of her.

I scare myself thinking now how much harder I would have made this young woman’s life if I would have followed our norms and denied her the credits she needed to graduate. Sometimes grace has a way of humbling you and reminding you that one of the best attributes you can have is kindness.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Some of the kids I teach have impossible home life situations. That’s the most difficult part of being a teacher — when something happens to a great kid that makes them jump into survival mode and justifies them putting academics as the lowest priority, and you are powerless to help. I don’t like being in that spot because I feel I should do something to help. I try, but often it’s just not enough, and then I feel like I’ve failed them.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

Before teaching I thought that every kid should be on a college-bound track. I brought that into my first year of teaching. But now I understand that some kids will go to college and some kids won’t, and there is nothing wrong with that. Although college is a fine path to take, going to a trade school or joining the military right out of high school might be the right choice for some.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Right now, I’m reading “Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence” by Bill O’Reilly.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Kids just want someone to think they are important and care for them. I have to believe that because I’m short, stocky, bald, and slur my words when I talk. But I’ve done well for myself with these students because they see me as someone who cares about them and wants them to do well.

Sometimes, all it takes is for just one person to believe in you and you can do anything — you can do the impossible. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been that one person for any of my students, but I strive to be.