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Every student should experience “that moment”

Keontre Asher, at left, a graduating senior at Monroe High School, takes his diploma from then principal Rod Miller. (Below) Monroe High School graduating seniors, from left, Laura Chavez, Janieyah Collins and Marquavis Collins take a moment to smile for the camera moments before their high school graduation ceremony begins.

Friends and family gather, often from across the country, to celebrate the big moment:

That moment that students, parents and teachers look forward to at the start of every school year;

That moment when 13 years of schooling culminates in a walk across a stage, a handshake and the delivery of a hard-earned high school diploma;

That moment when the principal announces to those gathered, “In recognition of your successful completion of all of the requirements for a high school diploma as established by the Union County Board of Education and the State of North Carolina, and upon confirmation of this fact by the faculty of this high school, and by the symbolic turning of your tassel from the right to the left, I hereby pronounce that you have graduated;”

That moment when children become young adults and begin new journeys into post-secondary education at a university or community college, offer themselves to the country through military service or choose to enter the workforce;

That moment that every child should experience; but not every child does.

In 2012, 89.5 percent of the Union County Public Schools students who had entered high school four years prior, earned their high school diploma. This cohort graduation rate was the highest among the state’s 34 largest school districts and the highest in UCPS history.

In 2007, the system’s cohort graduation rate stood at 77.2 percent, well above the state average of 69.7 percent. Despite knowing that this rate was among the highest in the state, the understanding that two out of every 10 students who should have graduated that year did not, drove the school system to an intense inspection of resources and programs for struggling students.

To address the number of students who were not graduating, the school system has placed “Drop-out Prevention Counselors” in each of the high schools. These school counselors were charged with working with middle school and high school students who were at risk of dropping out due to falling behind academically, poor behavior choices or personal situations beyond their control. As these students move from middle school to high school, they have an advocate in the counselor who has been working with them and knows their needs. Recently, the title for these counselors was changed to “Student Support Counselor,” recognizing the breadth of their work with students.

UCPS also created a program for students who had failed to earn course credits on time and would continue a downward spiral toward dropping out of school unless someone intervened with an alternative. The Career Academy of South Providence (CASP) program was created to address the needs of these students. The CASP program allows a student to graduate by meeting the state requirement for the number of courses through specific, targeted credit recovery. Counselors help students access the resources they need to pass courses they may have failed two or three times.

Recognizing that pregnant or parenting students are also at increased risk of dropping out, the system identified a staff member to specifically work with these students to keep them in school and on track. Additional pregnancy counselors are being hired through a grant from the Alliance for Children.

Students who make behavior choices that result in them being suspended from school for lengthy periods of time make up another group of students that is prone to drop out. In the past, these students were unable to continue their academic work. They would fall behind their peers and often give-up. The Alternative to Long-term Suspension (ALTS) program was re-purposed to allow students to attend school at the county’s alternative school and continue to earn the credits they need to graduate.

In the last five years, the UCPS cohort graduation rate has grown by 12.3 percent and now ranks first among large school districts in the state and the seventh highest among all school districts in North Carolina. (Even combined, these six small school districts with higher graduation rates only graduated 1,624 seniors. That’s 805 fewer than UCPS, which had 2,429 graduates.) The district continues to outpace the state average while improving at a faster rate, as well.

Through the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellis, principals and teachers in elementary, middle and high schools are continuing to look for new ways to reach and support students who are not achieving academic success and moving toward graduation. Dr. Ellis has stated, “The UCPS staff is truly trying to save every ‘starfish’.”

In spite of the tremendous gains and hard work of teachers, principals and volunteers in helping more students graduate than ever before, the system remains committed to continually improving until it can be said that every student has experienced “that moment.”

Written by: Rob Jackson, UCPS Community Relations and Communications Liaison
Posted: Aug 29, 2012 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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