District's completion rate skyrockets to an all-time high of 94.9 percent

July 8, 2011

More students are graduating from Northside ISD high schools than ever before.

For the Class of 2010, the District’s completion rate is 94.9 percent, and the graduation rate is 89.2 percent. Statistics for the Class of 2011 won’t be available until next year.

“To have a completion rate of 94.9 percent for a district as large and diverse as Northside is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Superintendent John Folks, who several years ago specifically made increasing the number of NISD graduates a top priority. “I really give credit to the high school principals and their staffs for successfully rising to this challenge.”

The completion rate, which the state uses to determine a school’s accountability rating, is the percentage of students who graduate four years after entering high school plus those who come back for a fifth year of high school. The graduation rate is the percentage of students who graduate four years after entering high school.

The completion and graduation rates are perhaps the single most important indicators of a school’s success. And what teachers, principals and administrators in Northside ISD can now attest to is there’s no secret to helping more students graduate. In fact, the plan is pretty basic: work hard, increase expectations, and create a team of school staff members committed to preventing students from dropping out.

But four years ago, the District had little to celebrate when it came to the percentage of students finishing high school. The state had just had just changed the definition of completion rate so that students who earned a GED no longer could be counted as “completers.” The District completion rate dropped from 90.3 percent for the Class of 2006 to 88.2 percent for the Class of 2007. Even worse, the completion rate for economically disadvantaged students dropped to 79 percent.

“We knew we were going to have to stop business as usual and put a focus on this,” said Brian Woods, Deputy Superintendent for Administration.

Looking back, the timing seemed serendipitous. In early 2007, the District received its first infusion of funding from the High School Allotment, a program established by the state Legislature to increase the completion rate and better prepare students for college.

“It’s the most successful legislative initiative at the secondary level in the last 20 years or more,” Woods said. “It is remarkable what the High School Allotment has done for Northside.”

The District’s success is rooted in several key decisions Superintendent Folks made about how to spend the money. No. 1, the money was used to supplement funding for graduation initiatives, not supplant it; No. 2, high school principals and staff had a say-so in how the money was spent on their campus; and No. 3, when the state no longer attached strings to the funding, NISD continued to earmark it for graduation and college initiatives.

Nowhere are the improvements more stunning than at Holmes High School, which, just five years ago, was labeled a “dropout factory” by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Now, “we are the poster child for completion rate,” Principal Dennis Ann Strong said.

Holmes’ completion rate for the Class of 2010 is 94.2 percent – almost 13 percentage points higher than the Class of 2007. And the graduation rate has skyrocketed a whopping 18 percent – from 72 percent in 2007 to 90 percent in 2010.

It hasn’t happened overnight, Strong says.

Like other NISD high schools, Holmes used funding from the High School allotment to hire additional staff to focus solely on identifying students in danger of dropping out and providing support and services to keep them in school.

A student’s single biggest hurdle to graduation is falling behind on credits, so at Holmes, the first step was to get students short on credits caught up with their peers. Once identified, they’re sent to the school’s Credit Retrieval Center, where they have access to a variety of programs to help them earn additional credits, often though online courses, zero hour (before school) classes, and summer school.

Step two was to increase student attendance. One assistant principal deals solely with attendance issues, and Holmes now has a zero tolerance policy for unexcused absences. School officials do not blink when it comes to sending students – and their parents – to court for truancy.

“Holmes has become very serious about the importance of attendance,” Strong said. “Students now understand it’s far better to be in school.”

This past year, Holmes went a step further. In January, every administrator at the high school was assigned a group of 10 to 15 seniors teetering on the brink of failure either because of poor grades or inability to pass a TAKS exit test. They served as mentors, meeting with the students individually as needed and watching their grades on a daily basis. All but a handful graduated this past June.

“It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary,” Strong said.

Anthony Cox, 16, is one of about 200 students at Holmes spending his summer in school. He’s supposed to be a junior but needs to earn credits in world geography and biology first.

“I slacked off my freshman year,” he admits.

Anthony previously lived in Sugar Land but after some disciplinary issues at home, his mother sent him to San Antonio about five months ago to live with his grandmother.

Something finally clicked, Anthony said, and he realized that if he didn’t want to be poor the rest of his life, he was going to have to finish high school and go to college.

Holmes gave him a second chance, he said.

“The teachers are different here,” he said. “The teachers here care a lot. The principal cares.”

Caring, along with changing attitudes and increasing expectations play a less tangible though very integral role in the District’s graduation and college initiatives.

“It’s a realization that our responsibility goes beyond merely presenting material in class to making sure students are actually learning and understanding,” said Woods, the Deputy Superintendent for Administration.

It’s had a huge and very real impact. In fact, the percentage of students failing core courses in math, science, social studies, and English has dropped dramatically – double digits in many cases – from the 2005-06 school year compared to 2009-10. And the completion rate for economically disadvantaged students? It’s 93.7 percent for the Class of 2010.

Five years ago, Anthony, the student at Holmes High School, might have slipped through the cracks. But now, he’s got his eye on a high school diploma and a college education.

Anthony said his mom wants him to move back to Sugar Land, but he wants to stay at Holmes, graduate, and then major in engineering at Texas A&M.

“I just want to get out of high school and go to college,” he said. “I want to be able to get that high school ring.”