By Madelynn Coldiron
Teenagers are notorious for tuning out adults, so it was significant when Knox Central High School students noticed that their principal accidentally omitted a regular part of his morning announcements.
Tim Melton usually proclaims, “It’s a great day to be college and career ready!”
When he forgot one morning last year, the first year of the struggling school’s priority status, he heard about it from students, said literacy education recovery specialist Debra Reed, who is helping with the school’s turnaround efforts. Even though students may not have taken the slogan seriously at first, she said, “I think toward the end of the year it started becoming a pride thing, that they wanted to be college or career ready, or both.”
PHOTO: Catrina McDermott, curriculum coach at Knox Central High School, leads teachers in a session of the language arts professional learning community.
Kim Bullard, the school’s education recovery specialist for math, said the school has taken it so seriously that its leadership team, which includes teachers, decided to set this year’s goal for college and career readiness at 100 percent of graduates instead of 70 percent.
“That was very powerful, I thought, that they wanted to change that – that it wasn’t Mr. Melton, but it was those teachers on that leadership team who said, ‘We don’t want to leave anyone out. We want to have 100 percent of our seniors to be college and career ready as they walk out the door,’” Bullard said.
Knox Central High School last year increased the percentage of college and career ready graduates from 17 percent to 49 percent, reduced its dropout rate from 2.9 to 0.5 and breathed new life into its professional learning communities.
But Melton said it’s the emphasis on college and career readiness that has resonated. The school has found ways to make that goal relevant to students.
An emphasis on career and technical education, and career pathways for ninth- and 10th-graders play a big role in that relevance. “There’s choice here for the students,” Melton said. “We want them to be in a pathway that allows them to be exposed (to a career) to see if that is an interest to them.”
Among those choices are business and agriculture programs, pre-engineering, a new biomedical program, welding, college prep and a thriving ROTC unit. While those are offered in-house, students also are bused to the local technical school and have work co-op and job shadowing opportunities.
For those students who are college-bound, both the district’s high schools are involved in an early college program with Union College and have a strong lineup of advanced placement classes, though Melton said his school must work to bring up student scores on those.
In an effort to focus students on their future and provide individual attention, every student was hand-scheduled last year.
“They know what they need to do for what’s next in their life,” Reed said.
Curriculum coach Catrina McDermott said she thinks changing the school’s culture has been one of the biggest challenges. Having the common goal of college and career readiness that staff, students, parents and the community understand has been a significant factor in the turnaround, she said.
“Kids are starting to internalize the mission and the vision and what we hold as important to them,” McDermott said.
The school has set up what it calls a “skinny” period of 35 minutes at the start of the school day, four days a week, set aside for intervention or enrichment. Teachers are assigned to work with small groups of students identified as “on the bubble” in terms of meeting benchmarks. For enrichment, teachers with expertise or interest in certain areas create sessions on topics such as law and justice or science with a Mythbusters bent.
Teachers work on skills with those who need more intensive help through their career and tech courses, Melton said.
In addition, every Wednesday, advisory groups – small groups of students – meet for 35 minutes with a faculty advisor. Freshmen and sophomores are grouped by career pathway interest, something Melton eventually would like to extend to upper classmen, who currently are grouped alphabetically.
The focus on career and technical education encompasses special-needs students – seven of whom graduated and entered postsecondary education and two who entered the workforce last year. “Our focus with them is just like our focus with other students,” Melton said.
This year the school is easing in standards-based grading, which the principal said will see teachers working together on common assessments, as well as more accurately measuring what students know and eliminating grade inflation.
Knox Central had professional learning communities of teachers in the past, but those have been used more intensively and expanded with the turnaround, including groups for advanced placement courses and special education.
To address inadequate teacher evaluations, the school has beefed up classroom walk-throughs and coaching, with help from curriculum coaches and education recovery staff. The overarching idea is to keep teachers from teaching “in seclusion,” Melton said.
The school lost its principal, school council and 20 percent of its faculty after being named to the priority list. Despite that, McDermott said the morale has been positive. “There is a feeling of family and that we’re all in it together,” she said.