City graduation rates undergo 'remarkable' transformation

City graduation rates undergo 'remarkable' transformation

Asia Allen, left, and Yasmin Alverdi pose for a photo during a past graduation ceremony at Shea High School. (Valley Breeze file photo by Elise Manahan)

PAWTUCKET - It was a little more than two years ago when the city's two main high schools were forced into a "transformation" reform plan as graduation rates failed to rise above 60 percent for a third straight year.

School officials were elated last week at what they called a "remarkable" achievement: graduation rates at Shea High School and Tolman High School that have improved so much that the schools should be allowed to exit state intervention status by next year.

The improvement is being credited to a number of factors, including better engagement with students to make sure they're coming to school, and better tracking students who leave, according to school officials. If a student leaves and school officials can prove that he or she enrolled at another school, that student is not counted as a dropout.

Publicly, the graduation rate announced for the 2012-2013 school year at Shea was 82 percent, but school officials said privately that they expected that number to go up to about 83.3 percent once state officials complete their analysis this week.

The graduation rate announced for Tolman was 71 percent, and the rate for the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts was just over 90 percent. The new district-wide graduation rate for 2012-2013 will be in the vicinity of 75 percent, according to school officials.

Shea Principal Don Miller said he was "thrilled" when he heard the news, saying the "phenomenal results" put his school's graduation rate on par with suburban schools like Cumberland and Lincoln. These are "great results for any school," said Miller.

According to Miller, the success of Shea is due to a "combination of a ton of things," but creating a school "where kids want to come" is at the top of that list. There has been a lot of hard work on the part of many people to keep students in school, said Miller, giving them the supports, consistency, and collaboration between educators that they need.

School Supt. Deborah Cylke said much of the credit for the improved rate goes to the committee that created a state-mandated "transformation" plan for the two high schools back in 2011. The state also provided the money needed to do the "extra" interventions that educators know need to be done to help some students, she said.

"The funding matters a lot," she said.

Two new principals at Shea and Tolman, Miller and Chris Savastano, have had a significant impact on the graduation rate at their schools, said Cylke, leading the way on a host of initiatives.

Patti DiCenzo, the secondary school performance officer who has helped lead the transformation process, also deserves an enormous amount of credit for the upswing in the number of students reaching the graduation stage, said Cylke, but teachers, other administrators, and students all had a big role as well.

Cylke and DiCenzo both said that tracking systems for students who leave Shea have improved dramatically, leading to a better understanding of where students are.

Staff at Shea and Tolman are showing that they "care about kids" by reaching out to find where they are if they aren't in school, said Cylke. This is about staff not saying, "Oh well, they're gone," said Cylke, who stopped short of criticizing tracking efforts before the transformation process.

The transformation model, where the only people who lost their jobs were the two principals of the high schools, Chris Lord and Fred Silva, proved to be the right way to go, said Cylke, as everyone could get behind the effort.

"We felt our teachers and our kids had the ability to achieve," she said.

Miller, too, sees students and teachers coming through in all kinds of ways, all under the mantra that "dropping out really isn't an option." As a result of efforts to make sure at-risk students didn't drop out, he said, only two students who entered their senior year last year ended up leaving school. Expanding opportunities for students to recover credits, like chances to learn over the Internet and to catch up on missed assignments, has helped significantly, he said.

Booming attendance rates are also having an impact, said Miller. The rates from two years ago to last year shot up from 90 to 94 percent, 2 percent above the state average.

Attendance rates have benefited as administrators and teachers have worked to reduce suspension rates by more than 60 percent under his watch, said Miller, with educators choosing "alternate means" of giving students consequences so they can stay in school.

"We're trying to work with behaviors, to increase the level of respect," he said. Shea has become more of a place "where learning is the focus," said Miller, but rules are still enforced.

DiCenzo said Tolman has also benefitted from keeping more students in school more of the time. Suspension rates at the school were "skyrocketing" before transformation, she said, hitting 3,506 suspensions in 2011-2012. That number plummeted to just 226 last year, she said, as every effort has been made to keep students in school for lesser infractions.

DiCenzo said the good news for the district goes far beyond improved graduation rates to a "change in culture" at both high schools, with "great leaders in the building."

School officials aren't entirely sure why there is a big gap between the graduation rates at Shea and Tolman, but Cylke did acknowledge that it could have something to do with more special education students, including "severe and profound" students, being at Tolman. Miller noted that while Tolman does have the larger share of those students, Shea has a higher number of "English language learners."

State education officials announced in the fall of 2011 that the two Pawtucket high schools would be required to institute one of four reform models.

The state intervention was triggered by three years of both Shea and Tolman getting credit for less than a 60 percent graduation rate. Local educators later protested that the numbers used for the intervention at Shea were actually miscalculated, pushing the rate just above 60 percent, but state education officials said the deadline had passed to make changes.