March 6 — 3:37 pm, 2009

New measures keep kids focused on earning their diploma

As part of the effort to keep students on track to graduation, the School District – even before the unveiling of the strategic plan "Imagine 2014" – developed several new initiatives this year for use in high schools.

The tools are primarily designed to intervene early with struggling students and help them plan ahead. Among them:

  • An online credit recovery program, piloted in West Philadelphia High School. Students can work at their own pace online, in and out of school, to make up coursework that they failed.
  • Meetings between nearly 1,500 repeating ninth graders and their guidance counselors to identify the reasons they are struggling and develop plans for getting back on track. There are 2,300 repeating ninth graders in all.
  • An online graduation planning tool for students in grades 9-12 so they can keep track of the courses they have taken and the courses they need to graduate. The tool is under development by the Office of High School Reform, Policy, and Research.

 “As we start to focus on the overage and repeating ninth grader situation in our District, it’s not acceptable for us to allow these young people to just fail the ninth grade or to be in the ninth grade for a second or third year,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, the District’s Director of Multiple Pathways to Graduation.

Collins-Shapiro said that while none of the initiatives by themselves is thought to be a “silver bullet” to improving the graduation rate, each are necessary strategies to making a dent in the dropout rate. 

Credit recovery
One of the stumbling blocks to graduation is insufficient credits. Students can now retake classes through a new online credit recovery system available at their high school, home, the library, neighborhood recreation center, or anywhere they have access to a computer.

To get started, students must first consult their roster chair to identify which classes they need to retake. Then using a log-on issued by the school, they can access a provider platform to obtain the class materials. Collins-Shapiro said, depending on the school, students can use either Apex Learning or NovaNet. All content is aligned with state standards, so if a student fails Algebra I, for example, he or she would go into the platform, find the online course that meets Algebra I standards for the state of Pennsylvania, and then test his current knowledge of the content by taking an exam before completing the course. 

“It’s mastery-based, so it gives them credit for things they know and helps them focus on things they don’t know,” said Collins-Shapiro.

Each course has eight to 12 exams and students test through the material until they achieve mastery of all the content. Students have to achieve 80 percent mastery or above to earn credit in the system, and all exams must be taken at school.

The District rolled out the system to its comprehensive high schools earlier this year, with West Philadelphia being the first to use it.

“Schools are proactively looking at their rolls and seeing which kids could participate,” Collins-Shapiro said. “So, our primary focus right now is for seniors who could graduate if they make up their classes and ninth graders who are behind and need to move to tenth grade.”

Out-of-school youth on wait list at accelerated schools can also access the system through the District’s Re-engagement Center. Collins-Shapiro said staff is also looking at the possibility of providing it for its juvenile justice partners so that youth in placement facilities can better handle transferability of credits.

One-on-one time 

Last November the District began identifying students who were repeating the ninth grade and had regional superintendents instruct school principals to schedule one-on-one meetings between them and their guidance counselors. By December the District had completed 1,477 individual graduation reviews with students in the comprehensive high schools.

“It’s no longer acceptable for us to say that you have a hundred kids in your school that are repeating the ninth grade, and you don’t know why they’re repeating and what they need,” Collins-Shapiro said. 

During the face-to-face discussions, guidance counselors talk with students about the reasons they are off track and possible interventions.

“It could be credit recovery, tutoring, it could be that the young person had other issues outside of school that needed to be resolved in terms of child care or other things at home,” she said. “So we’re really trying to dig into how we as regional offices and central office can better provide services to the schools to help them with the kids who are most at risk.”

After the meetings, guidance counselors submit to their regional superintendent individual plans for each student. The District tracks on a monthly basis how many meetings have been held and for which students individual plans have been created.

Another one-on-one model that the District supports is the use of report card conferences with students. The service-oriented nonprofit City Year has been conducting these for the past six years, sending its corps members into high schools to work with ninth graders.

“It’s a pointed one-on-one conversation where we talk to the students about attendance, how they’re behaving in school and their progress on key subjects,” said Wyneshia Foxworth, City Year’s co-director. “Then once we’ve covered those basics, we look at the resources that they could use to either make progress or add on to what they’ve done,” she said.

That could mean talking with a teacher about improving their grades or visiting a school-based “student success center” to obtain resources to advance their academics. There are currently eight student success centers in District high schools, with plans to add three more in FitzSimons, Lincoln, and Germantown in 2010.

“I get a chance to talk to my students about life and say to them, ‘Think about the little choices that you’re making in your classes and how they impact your grades and therefore your ability to graduate and get into college,” said Andrew Jones, a City Year corps member. 

To date, City Year has reached over 1,000 students throughout 12 comprehensive high schools.

University City High ninth grader Eric Griffin said report card counseling “helps you get on track and encourages you to get focused.” Since participating in the counseling, his attitude about high school has changed “a little” and now he dreams of attending Louisiana State University.

Hi-tech help for graduation planning

In September every high school will have access to an online graduation planning tool.

The student portal will give ninth through twelfth graders access to their academic record, as well as resources for post-secondary education and career goals.

Students can find similar data through FamilyNet, a portal that houses a student’s entire academic history. But Naomi Housman, executive director of high school reform, said the tool is intended to not only provide students with information they need to move forward, “but also cultivate among students a deep level of engagement and sense of ownership over their academic journey.”

Housman and Educational Technology executive director Fran Newberg worked with key District staff, local community partner organizations, and the mayor’s office to design the software.

To use the tool, each student will go through SchoolNet, the School District’s data management system, to access a personalized password-protected page that contains his/her report cards, attendance records, academic interventions, and benchmark and standardized test scores that date back to the 2001-02 school year.

“We also plan to create a worksheet that automatically tracks the student’s status towards graduation by providing current data on credits accumulated as aligned with the District’s graduation and promotion policy,” Housman said.

The site will list college and career readiness resources such as information about financial aid, grants, scholarships, sample college placement exams, and internship and job opportunities.

Students will be able to craft their own goal statements, identify desired career paths, interests, and aspirations, and even upload art and other creative elements to personalize their space on the site.

In addition, they can work with counselors to create and document on the site a personal graduation plan that outlines short and long-term goals and required action steps for meeting those goals.

Housman said the tool will provide information specific to dropouts or those seeking alternative paths to completing school, and out-of-school youth will be able to access their profile, as the data associated with their student ID will remain in the system.

In the future, the design committee plans to extend use of the tool to students as early as sixth grade.

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