BY PAUL A. SPECHT,
Graduation coaches are like guidance counselors that work with students – who are typically impoverished – deemed to be at “high risk” of not passing their grade level. On an average day, they might sit in a classroom to observe a student’s behavior, have lunch with a student, or meet with a student after school to discuss school assignments. They also set up tutoring sessions for students who need it.
Graduation coaches are funded in a joint effort by the school system and by Communities in Schools of Wake County, a nonprofit student dropout prevention agency. Athens Drive High School, Millbrook High School, Powell Elementary School, Knightdale High School, and East Wake Middle are schools currently employing graduation coaches.
This week, CIS of Wake County will hire a graduation coach to work in two Knightdale elementary schools to be announced at a later date. Once hired and put to work in the Knightdale elementary schools, CIS and Wake County will have their first complete feeder pattern – meaning that, for the first time, they’ll be able to follow a student from elementary school through high school and measure the effectiveness of a graduation coach on the student’s performance.
“The earlier we intervene, the greater success we’ll have with students,” said Marvin Connelly, Wake assistant superintendent for student support services.
“Improving our graduation rates is more than just a high school task,” Connelly said. “We have to make sure our elementary students have strong foundations.”
Travis Mitchell, president of CIS in Wake, said his organization chose to put the new graduation coach in Knightdale because “we think that the areas of concentrated need are in eastern wake and southeastern Raleigh.”
Schools in eastern Wake have some of the county’s highest percentages of students on the school system’s free-and-reduced-lunch program. Last school year, every elementary school in Knightdale had at least 50 percent of its student population on the program. The county average is about 35 percent.
Mitchell says students who identify a career path are 85 percent more likely to graduate.
“Through this program, we’ll be able to turn (students) onto career opportunities much earlier in the game,” Mitchell said. “By the time they reach high school, they’re focused on an accelerated track.”
Last year, graduation coaches worked with more than 800 students. Among high school seniors, 100 percent of those who worked with graduation coaches graduated.
Sam Woodrum, is the graduation coach at East Wake Middle. He works four 10-hour days, holds an after school program two days a week, and makes a huge difference with at-risk students, according to Nancy Allen, East Wake Middle’s principal.
“Grades improve and (students) have a better sense of self because they know theres’ somebody who cares about them,” Allen said, referring to graduation coaches.
Allen said she’s “very excited” about working with students who worked with a graduation coach in a local elementary school.