By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Increasing Tupelo’s graduation rate will be among the top priorities for the school district’s new superintendent.
Doing so is not only a way to serve struggling students, but it is also an important component in Mississippi’s school ranking system.
Tupelo is currently ranked Academic Watch, the fourth of seven tiers used by the state, based on its test scores. To move into the top tiers, the district must not only raise those test scores, but it must also improve its 70 percent graduation rate. That number is for the Class of 2010, the last for which state data is available.
To be a ranked as a Star, the top designation, districts must have an 80 percent graduation rate, in addition to meeting certain scores on state tests. To be High Performing, the second-highest level, districts must also graduate 75 percent of their students.
New Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden is currently working with the administrative team to fully develop the district’s approach to improving its graduation rate and reducing its dropout rate. One facet of that approach will be a more aggressive use of the High School Advancement Academy for Tupelo High School students who are struggling.
The district plans to expand its General Education Development (GED) classes and has employed a dropout prevention coach working to keep students in school. Loden also cited the School-Aged Mothers program, which offers another option to a group of students – mothers and pregnant teens – who traditionally leave school in large numbers.
New Assistant Superintendent Matthew Dillon will be tasked with focusing on dropout prevention, Loden said.
“We want to not only increase the graduation rate, but focus on kids to give them second opportunities,” Dillon said. “We will be chasing students, calling parents, making home visits, if necessary. We need students in school.”
The Advancement Academy is for high school students who are two years behind their peers academically. Last year, the school was governed by a lead teacher, but Loden is currently in the process of searching for a principal as part of his plan to expand the school.
Part of the transformation, he said, will be getting people to understand it is different than the alternative school, where students go for bad behavior.
“A lot of people think of the Advancement Academy as being an extension of the alternative school, but in reality, it is an extension of the high school,” Loden said. “It is not for behavior issues, it is designed to help people two years or more behind in school.
“It is like a magnet school. It has a lot of potential to help us meet our graduate rate and help our students who are struggling.”
While Tupelo High School requires students to earn 26 credits before they graduate, the state of Mississippi only requires 24 and now allows students to earn a diploma with 21 credits, if parents opt out of three elective courses.
Tupelo’s school board voted this year to allow the 21-credit option for students at the Advancement Academy.
The district also moved its GED program last year to the Advancement Academy, which is housed in the Church Street school building. This year, Loden said he’d like to try to offer night GED classes for students with jobs.
A GED is a certification students can earn if they pass a series of tests certifying they have high school-level skills.
“I want our young people to have options to be successful in life,” Loden said. “The first thing would be a Tupelo High School diploma, then a High School Advancement Academy diploma. If all else fails, we want a GED. We can’t afford our young people walking on the streets.”
The new graduation coach is Jeff Norwood, hired as the district’s basketball coach. He will spend this summer meeting with students identified by the district as being at risk of dropping out of school. That may include seniors who failed to graduate or middle school students who have fallen behind their classmates, Loden said.
“We will knock on doors and say we need you to be at school,” Loden said. “Developing a relationship is a big key.”
Loden plans to use dual-enrollment courses, which he believes also would deter some students from dropping out of school.
Such courses are taken on a high school campus but allow students to earn college credit.
When Dillon was principal at Pearl High School this past year, the school had an arrangement with Hinds Community College in which juniors and seniors could earn up to 21 college credit hours. The only expense was a $50 application fee.
In Amory, where Loden spent the past three years as superintendent, the district had an arrangement with Mississippi University for Women that allowed students to take four dual-enrollment courses: English composition 1 and 2, psychology and algebra.
The university gave the students partial scholarships, and the Gilmore Foundation covered the remaining $220 tuition, plus the cost of books.
“There are opportunities we need to explore,” Loden said. “I believe there will be a college willing to partner with us.”
Seeing results will take time. The way the state’s rankings are currently structured, there is a lag time between commencement exercises and the data the state uses.
When the new rankings come out this fall, Tupelo will be judged by the Class of 2010. The seniors who graduated this year will impact the rankings in the fall of 2014, and the graduation rate of this year’s rising senior class, Loden’s first, will be used in 2015.
Loden said he believes the district’s efforts can begin to quickly make a difference on this year’s senior class, but he feels the biggest impact will come with the rising ninth- and 10th-grade classes.
He also stressed teachers can really help.
“Our best line of defense for dropout prevention is our classroom teachers, who form relationships with our students,” Loden said.
“Every child should have some teacher they have connection with or relationship with. It helps when the teacher talks to a counselor or principal and mentions, ‘I’m afraid a student will drop out.’ That will put them on high alert.”