SCORE Cites DCHS for Reform Efforts in Improving Graduation Rate

March 29, 2011
Dwayne Page

DeKalb County High School has been singled out for special recognition by a grassroots group focused on improving Tennessee's schools.

The education reform group State Collaborative on Reforming Education, formed by former U.S. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, released its annual report last Thursday and cited DCHS for its "Promising Practices" of innovative reform efforts in raising the graduation rate from 67% in 2003 to 91% in 2009.

The SCORE report, which has grades for every county in the state, addressed how DCHS made the turnaround.

The following account appears in the SCORE report:

In 2003, DeKalb County's lone high school was reporting a disappointing 67% graduation rate and was placed on the state's "targeted assistance school" list, a distinction reserved for schools that are failing to meet minimum benchmarks in achievement and graduation, according to the report.

To make matters worse, the school's record keeping had fallen into disarray, which meant that in addition to subpar academic performance, it had lost track of students who were being counted as dropouts.

"As a faculty and staff, we saw that we were in trouble," said DeKalb County High School principal Kathy Hendrix, herself a graduate of DCHS who rose through the ranks (she taught for 20 years to become principal right around the time that the state identified the school as problematic. "We knew we were in a hole and had to get ourselves out of it."

Tired of underperforming, DCHS launched a focused turnaround effort that has paid dividends and cut the dropout rate. The fix, a combination of common-sense strategies and aggressive interventions that address DCHS's unique problems, but that any school or school system can emulate. But it wasn't easy.

The rural setting of the 850-student DCHS, in a county whose economy is dominated by relatively low-wage manufacturing jobs, has posed special problems for motivating students, as many were dropping out to earn money or saw limited post-graduation opportunity.

To address these issues, DCHS's turnaround included earning a grant to help institute distance learning classes at the school while expanding course offerings generally. The school now also offers dual enrollment courses that allow students to earn both college and high school credits for certain course work, giving college-bound seniors a leg up.

In addition to offering more rigorous courses, the school took a thorough inventory of its less successful students, began formal processes for communicating with parents about their child's performance and attendance, and cleaned up record-keeping data so that the school could identify-early and accurately- the students who were at risk for dropping out or failing.

Administrators and teachers now call parents of students who have received incomplete or failing grades to ensure that their children begin before and or after-school remediation.

Teresa Johnson, who graduated from the school in 1979 and whose son is a DCHS senior this year, said the school's communication with parents has been helpful. "I'm a single mom and I do it all, so I want them to call me with anything that happens," she said.

Other programs include an adult high school offering flexible hours for students who have dropped out to work or raise a family and intercessions during summer and fall breaks for students to bridge whatever gaps may exist in their coursework.

The results over the last seven years have been striking. The graduation rate increased to 91% in 2009, and the average ACT score rose from 19.4 in 2003 to 20.8 as of 2009. Perhaps most notably, DCHS fell off the state's target list in 2009 and was recognized on the Tennessee Department of Education's 2009 "Celebration List" for attaining good standing for the first time.

"A lot of this is ownership," Hendrix said. "It's our high school. We all know each other. A lot of us grew up here. And so we wanted to get our high school back where it needed to be".

"To be economically competitive and increase job growth, Tennessee must improve its public education system," said SCORE Chairman Frist. "This annual report gives a comprehensive look at education reform in Tennessee, highlights innovative successes across the state, and gives clear recommendations and direction for improvement in public K-12 education. Tremendous progress has been made in the Volunteer State in the last year. But this report clearly shows that important work remains to ensure that every Tennessee child graduates high school prepared for college or the workforce."

The report includes a Year In Review, outlining the significant progress that Tennessee made in education in 2010, and highlights four "Promising Practices" of innovative reform efforts in different regions of the state.

In addition, the report outlines four priorities that SCORE believes will be crucial to continued progress in 2011. These priorities include:

Sustained policy leadership in education reform from state leaders, including legislators, educators, and business and community leaders. These leaders must ensure that recent reforms are successfully implemented and push forward with other reforms, especially those related to more directly connecting the state's new teacher evaluations system to hiring, tenure, and compensation decisions.

A comprehensive strategy for improving the pipeline of district and school leaders through the launching of a statewide initiative to create a network of high quality school leadership programs. These programs would recruit, train, and support highly effective school leaders.

A relentless focus on instructional quality by ensuring that there is an effective teacher at the front of every classroom. This requires connecting the state's new teacher evaluation system to high-quality feedback and professional development opportunities, and by creating and expanding mentoring programs for new and low-performing teachers.

Increasing the capacity of the Tennessee Department of Education by aggressively recruiting high-quality staff to the Department, and strengthening the Department's regional offices so they can support individual local districts in implementing reforms

"These four priorities are crucial to maintaining the historic momentum in education that Tennessee has experienced," said Senator Frist. "They are based in the belief that successful implementation, and not just policy change, is critical to seeing real improvement in student achievement."

The full report can be viewed here:

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with state and local governments to encourage sound policy decisions in public education and advance innovative reform on a statewide basis.

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