Educator-Led Program Helps At-Risk Students Get to Graduation Day

By Cindy Long

For anyone who still needs proof that giving teachers a voice raises student achievement, March Mountain Continuation High School is an excellent case study. In one year, the California school significantly increased graduation rates.  One of the reasons for their dramatic success:  they got “REAL” with staff-led committees that focus on Resources, Environment, Achievement and Life-long Learners.

“The REAL program is so clever, so simple, so integrated to everything that we needed,” says March Mountain English teacher Julie Alexander. “The idea was that each committee could choose projects that would improve any and every aspect of our campus.”

Although the REAL committee concept originally came from a consultant the school hired with funds from a federal School Improvement Grant, now that it’s in place, it’s a cost-free program that relies on what Alexander calls a “mind trust” of March Mountain staff and school partners. With good ideas and hard work, they’re bringing about change for their students. In fact, the mind trust further developed the program to include a fifth committee, the “Student Committee,” and now the program is known as REALS.

NEA Today asked Alexander about the REALS program so that other educators could learn from March Mountain’s success.

First, can you explain what a continuation school is?

In California, there is a continuation high school in every district to help kids who are at risk of dropping out. Most traditional high schools don’t have the credit recovery programs necessary for kids who’ve fallen way behind.  Students attend voluntarily, usually at the suggestion of their guidance counselor. A counselor might say, ‘you know, you failed almost everything freshman year, so let’s look at your options for graduating on time with your class.” A continuation school can be a good alternative. They provide students with smaller learning environments, more support, and an accelerated path to earning credits for graduation. More than 69,000 students attended California’s 504 continuation high schools last year.

Who are the students that attend March Mountain Continuation School?

These are kids who have faced tragedy after tragedy. They’ve had people die in their arms because they’ve been shot. This is a school full of kids experiencing grief or hardship. In a regular high school, these kids get lost in classes of 35 or 40 where they have to find a way to keep up or get left behind. Here, they get more one on one.

Who are the educators at March Mountain?

Like all educators, these teachers really care, and they’re sensitive to the needs of this student population. When bringing in staff, our principal makes sure it’s a good fit because the students here struggle, at home and at school. They need a lot of time and attention and that extra understanding. Some of our educators have had similar experiences in their childhoods, but even if they haven’t, all our educators can empathasize and educate accordingly.

How has the REALS program provided your educators with a voice?

My colleagues have all kinds of ideas of how we can help kids earn more credits and be more engaged in school. Now when we have an idea, we’re told “have at it!” If there’s something that interests us, and we’re willing to do the legwork, all of a sudden we’re getting things done This is all the result of having committees that meet regularly and have the power to implement new programs. It’s been phenomenal.

How has it helped more students graduate?

The main thing we needed to do was accelerate the number of credits our students were earning in a year. Too many were earning too few credits and then dropping out altogether. With the help of REALS, we brought in California’s Regional Occupational Program (ROP), where students can take off-campus career and vocational classes in fields like welding, retail, or nursing and earn five to 15 credits. We also now allow them to earn credit for work experience. They can go to a job before school one day a week and can get 10 extra credits. They simply have to bring in a time card. We’ve been able to get these programs on our campus because of REALS.

What has each REALS committee done to help students succeed?

When we first started, the economy was in a hole, and there was no money for field trips. The Resource Committee searched for free tours for students and free buses for transportation. Last year we had four field trips, and this year we’ve already had two. The Resource Committee also looks into the community to see what support they can find. For example, with the help of NEA’s Priority School Program and staff, they’ve developed a student mentoring program with members of Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically African-American fraternity that sponsors community service programs. They’re working with 35 of our boys, getting them excited about becoming productive people in society and encouraging them to become college graduates. Our mentors are some of the fraternity’s most notable members, such as a former Vice Admiral of the Navy who was in charge of the Surface Forces of the Pacific Fleet, and the vice president of Monster Inc., the popular drink company. The mentors also come to committee meetings to help brainstorm ideas for helping our students.

The Environment Committee focuses on making school a positive place where students feel good about themselves. For example, they hold awards ceremonies where students are honored for attendance and academic achievement. The receptions, with food donated by local restaurants, are held in the library and parents are invited. Students are given medals, certificates and goody bags. They also have their pictures taken which are included in the yearbook. The public recognition makes every student work harder so they’ll qualify.

I’m on the Achievement Committee and we established an advisory class where students meet with one teacher for 20 minutes every week. Our teachers have 15 to 20 students assigned to them for the entire year so we can better track each student’s progress and better support them. The plan is to simply talk to the students, to connect with them on regular basis and find out how things are going.  We’re their advocate for the year, and we may to talk to a college registrar for them or to another teacher in a class where they may be struggling.  It’s the coolest thing. We also talk about transcripts, which leads into the programs of the Life-long Learners Committee.

The Life-long Learners Committee schedules visits from college representatives – a simple idea that hadn’t been done before on our campus. One of our biggest challenges was that students wouldn’t leave with a plan for the next year, or even the next six months, but when we have colleges come on campus, that changes. More students ask questions from their teachers about college choices and scholarship options. Before the Life-Long Learners committee, students didn’t see their future beyond graduation.

The new Student Committee is focusing on a school-wide writing focus and tutoring services.

What were the challenges you had to overcome?

We needed to get more kids to the graduation finish line, and to do so, they needed to earn more credits in a year. We had to require that students give up a flexible schedule. They used to be able to come either in the morning or in the afternoon and take three classes a day. Now they must come for a full day and take six classes. That was a major obstacle that required buy-in from the students, but the REALS programs have allowed them to see the benefits of a more solid education and making it to graduation and beyond.