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Diplomas Now Boosts Tulsa High School’s Grad Rate and Helps Grieving Student Stay on Track

Successfully transitioning to high school can be daunting and difficult for any teenager. Students must make sense of a new school, a new schedule, and new people—all while managing harder classes and higher expectations. During this critical transition period, a student simultaneously confronting significant challenges at home might quickly slip through the cracks. But with the right support at school—and a bit of perseverance—even those facing the greatest challenges can succeed.

Meet Candace Goddard, a sophomore at Webster High School in Tulsa who knows a bit about both transitioning and persevering. During middle school, she lived with her grandma before her grandma passed away. She then lived at her uncle’s house, where nine other kids stayed at the time. This past summer, Candace moved in with her mom, but just a week before the 2016-2017 school year began, her mom died as well. She now lives with another grandma.

Despite these obstacles, Candace is succeeding at Webster. What has made the difference for her, she says, is the support she has received from her Diplomas Now mentors. Precious Lango—a City Year corps member known as “Ms. Precious” to the students—is the first person Candace goes to for advice and comfort. “I talk to her about things that have gone on at home like losing my mom and having to move,” Candace said. “It helps my mind get off of that so I can do better in class.”

City Year, an AmeriCorps program providing tutoring and mentorship, is one of the three organizations that comprise the Diplomas Now model. The other two are Communities In Schools (CIS), which connects the neediest students to resources they may not otherwise have, and Talent Development Secondary (TDS), which provides improvement strategies for schools and support for teachers.

“It would be very difficult for us to spend a lot of time with the kids one-on-one. So the support makes all of our jobs not only easier, but also more successful.”

Webster High School is classified as a high-challenge, high-needs school, according to Principal Shelly Holman. Many of the students come to school hungry every day, and return home to severe family problems. That’s why the adults at Webster come to work every day ready to tackle new challenges. Communities In Schools, for instance, provides access to food, and helps students acquire school uniforms, glasses, and other resources they may not otherwise receive.

Principal Holman believes that the Diplomas Now model, now in its fourth year at Webster, gives kids the support they desperately need, while allowing teachers and administrators to focus on providing the best instruction for the students. “It would be very difficult for us to spend a lot of time with the kids one-on-one. So the support makes all of our jobs not only easier, but also more successful,” the principal said.

Tamara Danley, an 11th grade English teacher at Webster, couldn’t agree more. When she first arrived at Webster, she felt overwhelmed. She learned quickly that it was very difficult for her students, many of whose skills were lagging, to engage. But after she embraced a new model from Talent Development Secondary, however, things began to change. “Even though it was more work up front for me, it made class go smoothly. Grades improved, more kids engaged,” she said.

The Diplomas Now program works especially well at Webster largely due to the school’s block scheduling, according to Principal Holman. Students attend four periods per day, while teachers each have three periods of teaching, and one period for planning. The planning period gives teachers time to strategically plan lessons, but also serves as the time when they can meet with Diplomas Now partners to discuss strategies to reduce Early Warning Indicators (EWIs) among students, which include issues with attendance, behavior, and course performance—the “ABCs.” When a student displays no problems in these areas, he or she is far more likely to graduate.

I talk to Ms. Precious about things that have gone on at home like losing my mom and having to move. It helps my mind get off of that so I can do better in class.

Danley leads one of Webster’s EWI groups. She says they meet for 45 minutes to review the ABCs to identify students who may need additional support. They try to include as many City Year, CIS, and TDS representatives as possible so that the team can develop a comprehensive intervention plan for each student, and identify a “champion” for them. “I’m a stickler because I believe in it so much,” she said, and the support has boosted her ability to effectively teach her English classes.

English happens to be Candace’s favorite subject in school. She enjoys the interactive discussions about the books they are reading in class. But in subjects where she feels she needs additional support, City Year tutors are available in class and after school to help. “I usually go to get help with math. They work with me on class work or homework—and really anything I need help with,” Candace said.

Tina Mott, the Talent Development Secondary School Transformation Facilitator at Webster, emphasized that because Diplomas Now has been there for almost four years now, many students like Candace come to school ready to embrace City Year corps members and other adults at school. Clinton Middle School, one of the feeders for Webster, is also a Diplomas Now school, so a number of students—even before arriving at Webster—expect their presence. “The peer relationships have been really positive for kids,” said Mott, who worked at Clinton before Webster.

Mott and Principal Holman agreed that the Diplomas Now model is deeply engrained in the school’s culture. Mott also said some of the greatest benefits are the result of the Diplomas Now partners, teachers, and school administrators working in concert to generate ideas. “It’s a team environment—people are willing to help out across organizational lines,” she said. “We all have our priorities, but I think our teams have really pushed to say, ‘We’re Diplomas Now. We do things a little bit differently.’”

Webster High School is expecting to see a 12-15 percentage-point increase in its graduation rate from 2015 to 2016 alone.

Many of Candace’s peers take advantage of the support offered by Diplomas Now partners, too. Caleb, a 10th grader at Webster, for instance, has dealt with six deaths in the family in the last year, and gangs have gotten in the way of his schoolwork. But his City Year, CIS, and school mentors have helped him push through. And Sir-Patrick, a 9th grader, said the adults at Webster have helped him focus on his work so that he can one day get a college degree and help pay some of his family’s bills at home.

Yet success at Webster is not isolated to individual student stories. Principal Holman said the school’s swelling graduation rate speaks volumes about how Diplomas Now is helping the school grow. Between 2013 and 2015, the graduation rate rose from 53.3 percent to 60.5 percent. And though the 2016 rates are not official in Oklahoma yet, Webster is expecting to see a 12-15 percentage point increase in the last year alone.

Candace will prepare to walk across the graduation stage in just two years. At 16, she still has time to figure out exactly what path she wants to take after graduation, but right now, she plans to work in cosmetology while she earns a college degree. Her Diplomas Now mentors, she said, have helped her build the self-confidence she needs to achieve that goal.

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