Sunday, June 18, 2017

Grad Your Grads

This is the time of school commencement activities, and they are filled will countless positive moments of joy and hope and gratitude. Everyone in the learning community has played a critical part in getting their graduates to the stage, including the staff, the parents, and of course, the students, and this ceremony is a great time to publicly recognize this shared accomplishment.  In schools, much of the work has been going on behind the scenes throughout the ten months and beyond leading up to the event. This effort is indeed critical for our struggling and reluctant learners, because the difference between graduating and not graduating is almost incalculable in regard to improving a student's life chances, and an organized support system significantly impacts their chance for successfully completing school.

The changes we put in place in our school during my tenure as a principal made a significant difference to our students' success. We started by moving the commencement date to the end of June and reintroduced a "no pass - no walk" policy for inclusion in the ceremony. This hard-line approach wasn't universally appreciated at first, but the ceremony needed to more accurately represent the real accomplishment of graduation. This change was made clear in September by stating the following: "I pride myself on being reasonable and approachable, but if you coming looking for an exception this rule in June, you will be staring into the abyss." Amusing Grinch reference notwithstanding, there was no doubting the sincerity of the message. It was duly noted that the number of students who had typically been taking their foot off the gas in the weeks after the previous events dwindled down to zero the very first time the ceremony was moved to the end of the year with this caveat in place.

As you all know, taking the hard line never works on its own, and the two crucial aspects of tracking and support are what get our struggling and reluctant students over the line. As principal, I made it my own project to run reports in the summer time and use them to compile spreadsheets of the entire cohort and their course completions, highlight where the concerns were likely to show up, then collect and share updates during the secondary breakout portion of our monthly staff meetings. This sent a strong signal to staff about this being a new priority. As well, being on the front steps in the morning and in the halls at breaks gave many opportunities to chat with students who could use a little encouragement or direction toward one of our support systems. "Ms. T. is expecting you in the learning center after school" was a real life nod to the "these are not the droids" meme from Star Wars and helped signal this to the students as well.

Our teachers responded brilliantly to the increased level of responsibility of this shared endeavour and began to go well out of their way to support their own students. Many even spent significant time after school supporting students not currently in any of their classes, and happily made use of their expertise and personal connections that made extra time together comfortable and worthwhile for the students. Non-enrolling staff were irreplaceable in this role as well, and the previously mentioned Ms. T. in particular was simply phenomenal in her ability to connect with reluctant learners and work along side them in nearly any curricular area, both inside and outside of the timetable. A team approach to tracking results, scheduling writing sessions for missing or failed mandatory exams, and the critical preparation sessions all played their part as well. Some of this work can be described mathematically. Some of it is better described as magic.

As a result, we had a nice run where for three consecutive years one hundred percent of our grade twelves successfully completed their graduation requirements. I also believe this work played a critical role in changing our school culture, as it showed staff and students what was possible with a little extra organized effort. The Neufeld axiom that "Kids will be successful if they can" was proven again and again and again and led to increased student and teacher agency around success.

A school district can also play a role in successful graduation, and we have certainly seen this happen in Sea to Sky. Twice a year, senior staff meets with each secondary school's principals and counsellors for Graduation Readiness meetings. An extraction from our student information system gives us a way to assign a point value for mandatory course completions, and helps identifies students who are at risk of not graduating. Of course, the conversations that follow about each student are far more important than the metric that counts their courses, and once again, I believe the real difference maker is the school principal directly supporting the counsellors in this work. I've been duly impressed by our principal team's understanding of their students' needs, the supports that have been put in place, as well as potential next steps to get everyone graduation eligible. This process has also acted as another means to catch data errors, which were a heightened concern during the transition to our new student information system, and has helped keep our information accurate and interventions timely.

There are other significant district pieces that are harder to quantify but deserve to be mentioned. Embracing the shift towards student-centered, competency-focused learning certainly plays a role. Every student can have an entry point to the curriculum and move along the continuum from there without getting stuck in the kind of minutae that used to cause many to bog down in their learning. There has been a strong mandate to move students forward with their respective cohorts and to avoid "perching" our grade elevens for a preparation year. Many aspects of aboriginal culture have been normalized across our district, from recognizing the territory at every meeting, holding circles to share and solve problems, and the encouraged growth of aboriginal student leadership and district-wide events like the Twenty-Four Hour Drum. These changes have helped to break down some of the lingering aspects of colonialism and many of the social and cultural boundaries that previously impeded student success.

Transition rates have improved throughout our high schools and our district's Six-Year Graduation rate for resident students has increased to an enviable 92 percent. More spectacularly, our Six-Year Graduation Rate for aboriginal students has jumped from the 30's to the 80's and has held strong for consecutive years. This particular metric has given us some provincial attention, and has been truly instructive to what is possible when following a clear vision around success for all learners. See the latest results: here.

Graduation is a happy time. We always thrilled for our strongest and most confident learners, the ones who garner multiple scholarships on their way to our big name post-secondary institution, and it is exciting to consider how they might step forward and change the world. However, we are most satisfied when we see the kids who truly needed us up on the stage, knowing we have all played a part in their success and how graduation will improve their life chances. I like to think that many of these students will also step forward and change the world, as we know that once graduated, there is no limit to what a person might accomplish. I believe this is the work that matters most in a secondary school, and the commencement ceremony never fails bring this home.

Grad your grads, everyone. You will be glad you did.

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