April 1, 2008 -- Clover Park High School in Lakewood, Wash., is proof that things can change. While graduation rates are dropping across the U.S., Lakewood's rate shot up from 39 percent just a few years ago to more than 70 percent today, a trend line which principal John Seaton calls "very positive." So, how did they do it?
After a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the school restructured itself, dividing students into small groups and pairing them with the same teachers for all four years, essentially turning teachers into surrogate family members.
"You've got a relationship that is so tight with those kids that they're willing to share their life with you," Seaton explained. "So you can become part of the solution for their problems."
Teachers at Clover Park aren't alone. A handful of schools across the country have discovered that a key ingredient to helping kids be successful in school is helping them deal with the problems they have in the outside world.
At Berrien High School in south Georgia, they created the position of "graduation coach" — a sort of super-counselor — to get involved with kids and look for risk factors, like pregnancy, poverty and truancy.
Sheila Hendley, the Berrien graduation coach, said, "I have sat with students and literally begged, 'please don't do this, the rest of your life depends on this decision.'"
The results have been dramatic. In just two years, graduation rates at Berrien shot up from 57 percent to 77 percent — a 20 percent increase.
Other schools have focused on problems specific to their neighborhoods, such as literacy or English as a second language, as a way to keep at-risk students from falling through the cracks. For students who do, the setbacks are real.
"Earnings of dropouts amount to only three-quarters of what high school graduates earn, and less than half of what college graduates earn," said Vicki Phillips, director of education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Educators say the solution won't come in the form of more testing.
As one principal put it today, the key is to see students as human beings, not statistics.