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Carlos Morffi distinctly remembers how he felt the moment he learned he had fallen off track to graduate. “It just kind of hit me like a truck,” the Mount Tahoma High School senior said recently as he sat in the counseling center of the south Tacoma high school.
Carlos didn’t realize he had fallen so far behind until halfway through senior year when a school counselor called him in for a meeting. There, with heart sinking, Carlos’ counselor told him he would end his senior year three classes short of the graduation requirement.
“I thought maybe I was a class behind, but I didn’t realize I was as far behind as I was,” Carlos said. “When I heard the news I was kind of scared, because in my mind, I was all set to just graduate, get the robe, the hat, to do it all special and just do the walk. But it kind of stopped me dead in my tracks in that daydream, and I realized I’m not there yet. I really need to get to work.”
School counselor Anneliese Nobles met with Carlos and his parents to develop a specific plan to get him back on schedule. Together they charted his missing credits and how he could make up the work through independent studies, online courses and community service. He’s now on pace to become the first in his family to graduate high school on time.
Tacoma Public Schools broke records in the 2013-2014 school year when the citywide graduation rate reached 78.3 percent. Mount Tahoma staff celebrated their 4.8 percent graduation rate rise. But the school’s overall graduation rate – 67.6 percent – ranked lowest of the city’s five comprehensive high schools.
Mount Tahoma traditionally educates a high percentage of students in poverty and students from subgroups that historically face achievement gaps across the district. Research shows these factors most often can cause students to drop out. But school Principal Kevin Kannier and his staff could not simply accept Mount Tahoma owning the lowest graduation rate in the city. Instead, they established a rigorous plan to reach every student – from seniors to ninth-graders – and steadfastly raise the graduation rate both immediately and over time.
“We are excited about creating opportunities for communication between counselors, students, and their parents,” Kannier said. “They are spending time talking about graduation and making a commitment to a plan that will get them there.”
The action plan to boost Mount Tahoma’s graduation rate revolves around robust data analysis and actively intervening with every off-track senior. It also provides more counseling to underclassmen so they better understand the consequences of getting off track and how they can recoup lost credits now.
“A lot of this is what we did before,” said school counselor Nobles. “It’s more intentional and better documented now, with more data to show what we’re doing.”
Specific action steps Mount Tahoma takes include:
At a recent senior class meeting, Assistant Principal David McColgan greeted students as members of the class of 2015 streamed into the auditorium. Every student received a copy of their transcript and a credit check worksheet.
As students gathered in the seats, McColgan walked them through a credit-check exercise. “Check off the boxes for classes you’re currently enrolled in,” he said. School counselors circled the room answering questions.
Senior Breanna Knox beckoned counselor Nobles over to ask if a class she took sophomore year counts as a history credit. She took some elective classes she wasn’t sure counted toward her graduation requirements. With relief, she hears they count.
“I knew I was on track, but I wasn’t sure if I had all the classes I needed,” she said. “This was helpful.”
Class meetings for students in other grades aim to get them thinking earlier about steps toward graduation – and their life after the cap and gown. While the senior class reviewed their transcripts, the junior class gathered in the gymnasium for a presentation by Tacoma Community College staff.
“We’re really trying to open up lines of communication with families and students and be transparent about where students are in their graduation requirements,” McColgan said. “No one needs to feel alone in the battle to graduate. We’re all in this together.”
For off track students, like Carlos, school counselor intervention meetings can prove life-changing.
Carlos said he fell behind in credits due to “slacking. Lots and lots of slacking.” He admits he still struggles with procrastination.
But before his counselor meeting, Carlos had just a hazy plan for life after graduation – a situation that’s drastically changed. Carlos wanted to join the military to earn free college tuition. But he didn’t know he could enroll while still in high school – and that doing so opened up more career options in the Army.
With that insight from his counselor, Carlos sprang into action. Within 48 hours Carlos met with Army recruiters. He passed tests to earn admittance to the Basic Airborne Course, which trains paratroopers and plans to enlist in September. He plans for the Army to pay for him to earn a degree in psychology, a passion sparked by a class on the topic he took at Mount Tahoma.
“I’m a future soldier,” Carlos said. “It’s something I’m glad I’m doing.”
Two years ago, Marcus McClain lost motivation to go to school.
“I was just in this funk,” the senior said. “I was skipping, ditching class. All my grades were falling.”
Marcus snapped out of his malaise when he got his transcript. He’d failed four classes second semester sophomore year and wasn’t happy about it. His first thoughts? “I have to step up my game. I have to do something to fix this,” the varsity football player said.
The sophomore-year slump cost Marcus 2.5 credits – or about five classes. Marcus sought out his school counselor and together with his mom, the three sat down to map out how he could make up the work.
Over the past year, Marcus took online classes through Apex Learning, passed state-required tests and earned credit for working at Metro Park’s Star Center.
In early spring of his senior year, Marcus found out he completely made up the credits and requirements. Pride and relief replaced his previous sense of despair.
“I really believe I will graduate now,” he said, on a break from his plant biology class. “For me, that means a big goal accomplished. Not a lot of my family had a graduation. They see it as a big accomplishment for me.”
Marcus plans to attend Tacoma Community College before transferring to a four-year university. He’s considering pre-law or nursing tracks.
Shane McDaid never failed a high school class. But he was still in jeopardy of not graduating.
Every student in Washington must pass state tests in reading, writing, math and biology before receiving their diploma, and Shane failed a few tests.
“It’s the way I write and think,” Shane said. “I usually slack off and get tired and write sloppily.”
Shane worked with his school counselors to determine when he could retake tests. He learned a strong score on the ACT, a college-entrance standardized test similar to the SAT, would satisfy Washington high school test requirements. He challenged himself to study hard for the ACT and passed. He paid attention to his English teacher’s tips on crafting stronger persuasive essays.
If he passes his last writing requirement, Shane will graduate on time in June. Next, he's considering attending community college to become a physical education teacher.
With nearly four years completed at Mount Tahoma, Shane’s gathered wisdom he shares with incoming freshmen:
“Don’t slack off in the beginning of freshman and sophomore years” like I did, he said. “I don’t think I was listening when my teacher told me I needed to pass that math test to graduate. If I knew, I wouldn’t have just circled guesses.”
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