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Schools expand credit recovery programs

Leaders find ways to better prepare high schoolers for graduation
  • GRADUATION GAINS—Shorter school days have led to success for students in the Lakota Local School District near Cincinnati. Educators at the Career Readiness Academy also develop individualized, blended learning plans that include in-depth projects for each student.
  • Sources: Carnegie Foundation, Evergreen Education Group, Blackboard K12

High school graduation rates have hit an all-time high. Virtual credit recovery, offered in 90 percent of U.S. public high schools, have helped fuel that increase, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Nevertheless, half a million high school students still drop out each year, and questions loom about whether some students who recover lost credits graduate without demonstrating vital competency and readiness.

In response, district leaders have enhanced credit recovery programs with wraparound supports while also recommitting to proactive efforts to keep students from falling too far behind in the first place.

Success with a shorter school day

In suburban Cincinnati, Lakota Local School District’s Career Readiness Academy offers a small, personalized learning environment for students who need extra academic support. “The academy is unique because students are in the driver’s seat controlling the curriculum pace,” Principal Nicole Isaacs says.

Each Academy student follows a blended, individualized learning plan. Sixty percent of the time, they work through online content. For the remainder, students work with a teacher on in-depth projects that align with state standards.

Students can propose a project in an area they’re interested in and then present their work at an academy showcase. Each student works on the same curriculum that is followed in traditional Lakota schools, but with a shorter day.

The academy offers three-hour learning sessions in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Students must work 15 hours each week on closely monitored online courses to make up for class time. “A lot of our students go to work before or after they come to school,” Isaacs says. “Going from six classes in a traditional bell schedule to only three in our schedule is helpful.”

To encourage students to think about the future and set career goals, the academy also brings in various experts and industry representatives, such as members of an electrical union who told students about training programs.

Academy students also participate in mock interviews and in college tours, and learn about postsecondary vocational training and financial aid.

They must meet the same graduation requirements—and will receive the same diploma—as other district students. Isaacs attributes the academy’s 90 percent graduation rate to the supportive, family-like environment. “When a student doesn’t come to school, everyone notices,” she says.

Fran Morrison, Lakota schools’ director of secondary curriculum, helped create the academy. She points to flexibility—to attend, to master content and in the approach to instruction—as another key factor.

“More and more students are going to request or require this innovative education approach,” she says.

Self-pacing in summer school

Grandview R-2 school district’s Missouri Online Summer Institute offers flexible, student-centered, virtual learning that’s free and available to students statewide.

Students can recover core credits lost during the school year, take courses not offered in their home districts, or accelerate studies to make time for dual enrollment, work obligations and internships.

Through the institute, also known as MOSI, students work at their own pace and choose from more than 100 courses, including electives and advanced placement. Mentors provide technical support and general course guidance while advisors intervene when students fall behind or fail to submit assignments.

Elaine Schlett, the institute’s coordinator, acknowledges that virtual education may not be embraced by every district or provide the right solution for students who need more supervision. However, she believes the institute gives many students a valuable alternative.

The institute, for instance, helped a homeless student who was living in his car find internet access so he could complete online courses.

Schlett notes that some other students who lack internet access at home get online at local shelters, the library or at youth and community centers.

“We have also had students who needed one class to graduate and we worked with them to finish one day before the deadline,” Schlett says. Teachers, mentors and advisors stay in daily email contact with those students to provide encouragement and assistance.

The five-year-old program has grown from 300 students to nearly 1,300 enrolling each summer, from both rural and suburban areas. “MOSI has created a statewide interest in virtual education and how it can enhance other districts,” says Schlett.

Study hall for all

In Newman-Crows Landing USD in California, 20 to 30 percent of the 200 rising sophomores who enter Orestimba High School have not met eighth-grade requirements. “Many do not believe that school course work is connected to their future,” Principal Justin Pruett says.

Located in a small agricultural community, Orestimba also receives credit-deficient transfer students from other districts. Additionally, some students face challenges—such as job schedules, family responsibilities and medical issues—that hinder academic performance.

Assistance begins with a study hall class that every Orestimba student takes. Having study hall built into the daily schedule helps ensure that all students have designated time and support on campus to focus on coursework. Students not on pace to graduate must enroll in an online credit-recovery program. Orestimba provides each of those students with a computer and Wi-Fi access.

Students needing more supervision have a structured study hall, with a lower student-teacher ratio, where they focus on coursework for classes in which they have fallen behind. “We don’t relive [students’] mistakes,” Pruett says. “We meet them where they are and make a plan for the time they have left to graduate.”

In addition to 24-hour online access to credit recovery courses, tutoring takes place before and after school, and counselors meet with students regularly to check progress. The study hall blocks also provide time for teachers to meet, review data, discuss teaching strategies, set goals and check progress. “This [helps] ensure high-quality instruction for every student the first time,” Pruett says.

No risk of failing

Over 20 years ago, Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska, found that its students’ classroom struggles persisted after graduation. Consequently, the district transformed its traditional curriculum into a personalized, performance-based model.

“[We are] not a credit-based district, so traditional credit recovery programs are not needed,” says Debbie Treece, executive director of student services.

From preschool through high school, Chugach students move through benchmarks toward a diploma. They develop at their own pace in 10 content standards until 80 percent proficiency is demonstrated; then, they move to another level.

Teachers and staff provide individualized support and education through thematic, holistic lessons.

“Because students focus on content targets until they demonstrate readiness to move forward, the risk of ‘failing a class’ is not an option,” says Treece. The district’s grading system includes “emerging,” “developing,” “proficient” and “advanced” levels.

The district’s graduation rate is 87.6 percent over the past nine years. Treece notes that some students graduate earlier than traditionally expected, while others take longer.

Teachers, students and parents regularly review each learner’s detailed transition and graduation plans. They map progress each semester based on a student’s dominant learning styles and academic strengths—all with an eye toward success after high school.

“If a student needs additional time beyond a traditional 12th-grade senior year, it is not a stigma,” she says.


Kelley R. Taylor is a freelance writer based in Virginia.