At Russellville Independent High School, no one has to say a word about the importance of graduating: students are surrounded by visual cues and symbolic non-verbal messages reminding them to focus on their future.
From mementoes they can carry to commitments they have signed and from college banners on classroom doors to student selfies on hallway walls taken with college acceptance letters or work uniforms, they are being surrounded by the message to stay on track to graduate and prepare for what’s next.
With something visible that students can latch onto, Principal Kim McDaniel said, “You’ve helped them make a more concrete connection with these ideas.”
But there is plenty more beyond the visual reminders for students. It’s all part of the Commitment to Graduate Initiative (C2G) the school launched in January, which itself is part of an overall, ongoing schoolwide transformation to motivate kids to want to achieve.
The push came about as school administrators began discussing how to promote college and career readiness “and to do that in ways that seemed more real, more purposeful,” Assistant Principal Brandon Blake said. He said he had heard some ideas at a conference sponsored by Jostens, a company that produces goods for the K-12 market.
Russellville High School students gather around a white graduation robe and add their signatures to it, signifying their commitment to graduate.
While the basic C2G program is made available by that company, McDaniel said “we’ve put our spin on it,” with original ideas – many from Russellville students – and from successful elements other Kentucky schools have used to emphasize college and career readiness.
Sophomore Ashlee Gilbert said C2G motivates students by showing them “that there is a life outside of school – that all this 12 years is actually going to pay off someday.”
To launch the C2G initiative, the school dedicated a week in January to special activities, including a commitment ceremony for each grade level, formatted like a graduation ceremony in which each student verbally pledges to graduate. Freshmen receive green wristbands denoting their commitment to graduate; each sophomore similarly receives a lanyard; juniors receive a miniature graduation cap tassel keychain; and seniors parade to a white graduation gown that they sign, while also voting on a teacher to wear the gown at graduation.
Walking to shake the principal’s hand during the ceremony was “as if you were walking across like graduation,” junior Jaylyn McMurry said, while classmate Jordan Blick added, “It made us think about what we wanted to do later on in life, what we wanted to do in college and past college, even.”
Since this was the first year, all students signed a banner committing to graduate as part of their grade’s ceremony. In future years, only freshmen will sign it. The banners are displayed on a gym wall until each class graduates.
“We wanted the kids to verbally commit to us that they would graduate, but at the same time we wanted them to also understand that we were committed to helping them graduate and that we would do whatever we could possibly do, or whatever it took, to make that happen for them,” McDaniel said.
Russellville Independent school board member Davonna Page praised the program and the school staff for always “going out of their way” to encourage students. She said the signed, white graduation robe, now displayed in the school lobby, got some greater visibility when the district basketball tournament was held at the school. “Every time I walked by I had to smile and think, ‘I’m so glad that’s hanging there and that not only the public in Russellville got to see it but the public from the other three schools got to see what we’re doing at Russellville High School,” said Page, also a member of KSBA’s board.
Other elements of C2G include:
Stay on Pace, which provides after-school remediation through online learning for students in grades 6-12 who have failed the first semester of one or more courses. Among other benefits, this gives them an incentive to pass the second semester.
ACT prep for juniors, via an incentive program dubbed “The Tassel is Worth the Hassle.” In this element, juniors use the schoolwide daily 40-minute intervention period to prepare to take the ACT in March. Students are rewarded for goal-setting and attainment, and effort in ACT prep. The reward consists of biweekly Friday fun during the intervention period. A bigger celebration is held in March for qualifying students. Juniors also are asked to list three career interests and correlate them with the ACT.
Students have played a big role in generating ideas for the program and serve on various committees. “It’s just amazing what they come up with and want to do for the school,” said Jessie Baker, a U.S. history teacher who serves on the C2G committee.
“Their enthusiasm gives us enthusiasm,” Blake noted.
Sophomore Emma McReynolds, for example, dreamed up Straight Outta Russellville (playing off the movie Straight Outta Compton). Her idea is for students to identify successful alumni and place their pictures on posters on an alumni wall. Sophomore Katie Paul is planning promotions involving teachers, including one in which teachers would post on their classroom doors a list of careers students could pursue by taking the courses they teach.
“It makes you feel appreciated when they come to you for ideas,” Gilbert said. “And whenever you have that personal say into how some things are done, it really, I think, engages students more so than if there were just a teacher in front of a class saying this is how it’s going to be. Instead, it’s ours, too.”