Intent on raising Sunnyside Unified School District's graduation rate, Superintendent Manuel L. Isquierdo came up with the six-tiered Project Graduation program that incentivizes students to stay in school and provides the support they need to be successful.

Jan 05 2011

How SUSD Uses Technology to Boost Graduation Rates

Project Graduation gives students netbooks, increases completion by 50%.

Roughly three and a half years ago, Manuel L. Isquierdo needed to reverse Sunnyside Unified School District's reputation as a "dropout factory," so the new superintendent began offering his students a deal. Every student who attends class, gets good grades, participates in at least one extracurricular activity and doesn't get suspended earns a free netbook computer.

The strategy worked. Since fall 2007, when the Tucson, Ariz., district's Project Graduation initiative debuted, the number of graduating students has risen from 598 during the 2007–2008 school year to 821 in spring 2010.

Besides the dangling carrot of a free netbook, Project Graduation includes an intervention plan through which staff members monitor students' grades and attendance. There's also a credit recovery program, which makes it easy for students to catch up on credits. "If we gave away laptops without the other things, we wouldn't have the success we have now," Isquierdo says. "The students have to earn their laptops. And when they do, it really makes the kids believe in themselves."

U.S. graduation rates have begun to improve this decade, growing from 72 percent in 2001 to 75 percent in 2008, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Researchers have found that if educators have early-warning indicators that students are in danger of dropping out, as well as recommendations on how to intervene and re-engage the students, those students' chances of graduating are much higher.

Technology plays a big role. Some districts are taking attendance figures and grades from student information systems, combining them with state assessment scores and inputting that data into a data ware­house to provide administrators with reports on students at risk of dropping out. With that data, educators can reach out to struggling students and help them stay in school. In the classroom, meanwhile, educators are using technology to engage students in the learning process. If students fall behind in their schoolwork, they can use online coursework to remediate skills or to catch up.

These efforts help keep children in school, says Davina Pruitt-Mentle, director of educational technology policy, research and outreach at the University of Maryland. "It's about motivating kids and providing them [with] workforce skills, so they see relevance in education," she says. "It can lead them to continue on and not drop out."

Project Graduation

In 2007, both of Sunnyside USD's high schools were saddled with the "dropout factory" label following the publication of a Johns Hopkins University study of DOE data. The study's researchers applied the term to the 1,700 high schools they identified in which roughly 40 percent of freshmen didn't make it to their senior year.

When Isquierdo joined the district in July 2007, about half of its freshmen went on to graduate. Isquierdo immediately took action to turn things around. He researched dropout prevention best practices and met with principals, teachers and counselors to develop a strategy. And with the backing of the district's governing board, he launched Project Graduation in spring 2008.

Isquierdo calls the components of the initiative, which is tailored to incoming freshmen, the "six strands." First, he explains, district administrators developed "graduation awareness plans" for each high school that include goals and strategies, such as setting high expectations for students and getting parents involved.

Second, the district made credit recovery more accessible by creating computer labs where students can take online courses during and after school. In the past, the district charged for the classes. Now, they are free.

Third, the district offers freshmen intervention. School officials analyze first-quarter grades, and if students are failing, the district provides tutoring or other customized instruction. With the fourth strand, schools monitor attendance.

Fifth, students are paired with advisers with whom they meet twice a week to go over their progress. The district's student information system tracks daily attendance, grades and whether students complete their homework assignments. According to Mary Veres, assistant director of information technologies, a staff SQL programmer wrote an application that allows the district to build twice-weekly reports that show students' academic and attendance progress. Advisers then use these reports to guide their meetings with students.

With the sixth strand – "The Digital Advantage" incentive – students can earn a free netbook from the district. To do so, freshmen must meet four requirements in their first semester: earn a minimum 2.5 grade point average with no more than one F; have a 95 percent attendance rate; participate in an after-school extracurricular activity; and have no suspensions. A Project Graduation: Digital Scholars program is available to sophomores, juniors and seniors, who must earn a minimum 3.5 GPA for three consecutive quarters to receive a free netbook.

Isquierdo raised about $1.2 million from local and national companies to pay for the netbooks. So far, the district has awarded 1,950 netbooks to students – and officials expect to award another 500 devices by the end of the current school year.

Peter Baccile (center, in red tie) says Hornell City School District's Response Able Classroom initiative was a true team effort spanning many departments. He's shown here with (clockwise from top) Frank Fenti, Linda Shock, Ted Illi, Anthony Gill, Shawn Ward, Val Draghi and Jennifer Sorochin.

Photo: Douglas Levere

Project Graduation has indeed motivated students to stay in school, Veres says. Last year, 821 of 991 seniors graduated – a rate of 83 percent. This year, the district is on track with its goal to graduate 850 out of 979 students. "You can see a huge jump in graduation numbers – not because of the netbooks necessarily," she says, "but because of the rigorous monitoring we've put in place for attendance and credit recovery."

Sunnyside USD isn't done, however. The district currently is investing in new classroom technologies, equipping every teacher with tablet computers and each classroom with document cameras and projectors enabling interactive whiteboard functionality.

Now that the district has set a standard for academic excellence, Isquierdo and his team are revamping Project Graduation. Within the next two years, they'll phase out the free netbooks incentive and replace that component with a one-to-one computing program. The one-to-one initiative actually began this academic year, with the district providing all fifth-graders with netbooks. One-to-one computing will expand to every middle and high school student in the coming years.

The revised approach ensures that every child will have a computer, which enhances their education over the long term, Isquierdo says. He adds that the district is now offering to replicate Project Graduation in other school districts with similar demographics.

Response Able Classroom

Nearly 2,300 miles away, New York's Hornell City School District is investing in the future through meaningful technology integration and by redesigning instructional spaces; focusing on student engagement; and redefining pedagogical approaches. The goal is to improve graduation rates and create globally competitive students who are prepared for the workforce of the future.

The district recently began rolling out its "Response Able Classroom" initiative, which blends online learning with project-based classroom learning. In this new model, the students will learn core content material via online instruction with a live certified instructor. In-district teachers, meanwhile, will be able to individualize instruction for each student and supply immediate remediation when necessary, and will also collaborate across curricula to develop project-based lessons that teach students critical-thinking skills.

Together, these efforts aim to make learning compelling and relevant so students stay engaged, while also teaching them important 21st century skills, says Peter Baccile, the district's technology director and the regional virtual school's coordinator. The initiative – the brainchild of Super­intendent George A. Kiley – has been in the making for several years. When Kiley arrived in 2005, graduation rates were at 56 percent. So he analyzed the district from top to bottom, looking at everything from administrator and teacher performance to the types of learning media used and the classroom technology that was available.

When Baccile joined the district in 2007, the technology available to students was limited at best. Hornell's five schools had about 750 old computers and five interactive whiteboards; 10 percent of the classrooms had projectors. So in early 2009, Kiley launched a districtwide plan to equip every classroom with Promethean whiteboards, projectors, document cameras, student response systems and Lightspeed Technologies classroom audio systems, among other tools.

District IT staff started outfitting elementary school classrooms first and will have the technology installed in every district classroom by the end of summer 2011. Administrators have launched a one-to-one computing program as well and are equipping each student with a netbook. They also are offering online courses, which allow students who are behind to recover credits and stay on track for graduation.

The Response Able Classroom initiative is the culmination of Hornell City School District's technology investments. This past fall, the district implemented its blend of online and project-based learning at its Alternative Placement Academy, a school for students in grades seven through nine. Administrators plan to expand this approach to the junior high school in the near future. And if the data justifies the approach, the district will bring it to the high school over the next few years.

Hornell also is designing a new classroom for the effort. On the right side of the room, a Cisco Technologies telepresence unit will connect students with guest speakers via high-definition video conferencing. The middle of the room will function as a flexible space, with movable tables and mobile technologies, where students can participate in virtual learning or project-based learning activities. And an oval, conference-style Harkness Table on the left side of the room will allow students to interact more directly with their teachers and collaborate on projects, Baccile says. That portion of the room also will feature an interactive whiteboard and a web-based video conferencing system so students can communicate with other students around the world.

Hornell City School District's first redesigned classroom will be built in fall 2011. Although the Response Able Classroom initiative remains a work in progress, the district's efforts already are paying off. Graduation rates have jumped from 56 percent in the 2005–2006 school year to 86 percent today.

"We've made a lot of progress, and we won't be satisfied until we reach 100 percent," Baccile says. "Our principals, instructional technologists, technicians, curriculum team and academic intervention services' digital instructors all had to come together to make this [initiative] work for our district."

Tracking Dropouts and At-Risk Students

A few years ago, the Pasadena (Texas) Independent School District installed a new student information system and data warehouse software, allowing administrators to track students' academic progress. The system feeds the information into a data warehouse, which produces hundreds of online reports – including those that track student attendance, grades, behavior and state assessment scores. The data warehouse also produces lists of dropouts. District officials then use that information to try to convince students to return to school.

"Every day, our principals can pull up a report and see current or trend information," says Donna Summers, director of research and evaluation for the 61-school district.

The decrease in unexcused absences among Sunnyside Unified School District freshmen from 2006 through 2010, as a result of the Project Graduation initiative

When analyzing Pasadena ISD's data from the first year the new system was in place, Summers spotted one notable trend: One-third of its high school dropouts had failed to pass the state assessment test. Because students must pass that test to graduate, administrators at each of the district's five high schools increased intervention programs to provide upperclassmen with the tutoring or extra schoolwork they needed to pass the test, she says.

Springfield Public Schools (SPS) in Massachusetts has taken a similar approach. For the past year, district officials have tracked the academic performance of SPS fourth- through 12th-graders so they can spot at-risk students more quickly and intervene before those students drop out. According to Dr. Deborah K. Teale Gendreau, the district's technology director, the state provides districts with a detailed annual report about how well eighth-grade students performed on their state assessment exams. The district pulls the test scores and data (such as attendance and suspensions) from its student information system into a data warehouse.

The software analyzes each fourth- through 12th-grade student and, through a point-scoring system, produces a report that puts each student into one of five categories: accelerated; on track to graduate; and at-risk, high-risk or very high risk of dropping out. Although the state report focuses only on eighth-graders, "we want to give feedback at more grade levels and catch the students before they reach high school," Teale Gendreau explains.

The data warehouse has been in place for only a year, but it's already made a difference. With the technology, she continues, school officials can identify the students they should be monitoring and then quickly mobilize and put in place the appropriate interventions. "There's no doubt that [it's helping us] take advantage of the appropriate set of resources so that students graduate on time and with full credit," she says.

Walk the Talk

Once school districts use their data warehouses to produce lists of student dropouts, administrators can take that information, reach out to the students and try to convince them to return to school.

Intervention is a year-round endeavor at Pasadena Independent School District in south-central Texas. But the 61-school district also holds an annual "Walk for Success," where school board members, counselors, campus and district administrators, and teachers volunteer their time on a Saturday to visit the homes of students who have stopped attending school.

The goal of the walk – held several weeks into the new school year – is to encourage and convince students to return, says Associate Superintendent for Campus Development Troy McCarley, who organizes the event with fellow Associate Superintendent for Campus Development DeeAnn Powell.

Last September, 152 volunteers participated in the district's second annual walk. They visited 144 homes in Pasadena and its neighboring communities and made phone calls to about 230 more. In all, 36 students agreed that day to return to school. More returned in the ensuing weeks, too, thanks to the visits and calls made during the Walk for Success.

"It's a lot of work, but it's a rewarding day," McCarley says. "Every student truly wants to graduate, but for whatever reason, life or personal situations have gotten in their way."

Last September, 152 volunteers participated in the district's second annual walk. They visited 144 homes in Pasadena and its neighboring communities and made phone calls to about 230 more. In all, 36 students agreed that day to return to school. More returned in the ensuing weeks, too, thanks to the visits and calls made during the Walk for Success.

"It's a lot of work, but it's a rewarding day," McCarley says. "Every student truly wants to graduate, but for whatever reason, life or personal situations have gotten in their way."

<p>Steve Craft</p>

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