In the Classroom

‘They made sure I didn’t give up’: How an Indianapolis high school raised graduation rates

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students outside Arsenal Technical High School.

The sprawling campus of Arsenal Technical High School is an easy place to get lost. But if the rising graduation rate is an indicator, fewer seniors are falling through the cracks.

Two years ago, one in three students wasn’t graduating at the high school, which enrolls nearly 2,000. But educators at the largest high school in Indianapolis Public Schools have led a campaign to increase the number of seniors earning diplomas and boost the school’s graduation rate over the last two years.

And it’s paying off. Since 2015, the rate has risen by more than 15 percentage points, and last year 82 percent of the cohort graduated.

The impact of the improvements also extended beyond the school grounds. Arsenal helped push up graduation rates across the district to about 83 percent. The increasing graduation rate helped raise the school’s state letter grade to a C. More importantly, the gains meant an increase in the number of students earning diplomas, which will likely help them continue to college or earn better wages.

To be sure, high school graduation rates have improved across the country in recent years, in part because of a sustained effort to reduce dropouts. But Arsenal’s comprehensive approach to the problem could serve as something of a blueprint for other schools.

Their success has been so rapid that the question facing Arsenal staff now is whether they will be able to maintain the gains they have made — and if they can continue improving the graduation rate in the face of dramatic changes at the school and new challenges on the horizon.

The effort to improve graduation rates at Arsenal began two years ago, and was felt across the school, said Judy Carlile, the data and testing coordinator. Teachers were encouraged to build relationships with students and make sure they passed classes and earned credits.

Meanwhile, an eight-person graduation team focused on students who were at risk. When students had problems such as credit shortages, attendance problems, and failing grades, they received extra attention. And the team tracked down students who had stopped coming to school.

“There were a lot of kids who had just kind of fallen between the cracks,” said Carlile. “We just needed to bring them back together and say, ‘how can we get you where you need to go?’ ”

Graduation data revealed some obvious ways to improve. For example, the school had about five students a year who didn’t graduate because they failed gym, said Ross Boushehry, who is a social worker in his sixth year at Arsenal.

The school started offering ways for students to make up work, and they pushed them to get gym done in their first years of high school.

“We just thought to ourselves, this is ridiculous,” said Boushehry. “We have other, bigger issues to solve.”

Many of the students at Arsenal face serious barriers on their way to graduation. Last year, about 150 students were homeless, state data reported. Many students come to the school in their senior year with far fewer credits than they need to graduate.

Some seniors with credit shortages can make up the ground with options such as summer school or online courses. For others, the best option might be a program such as adult high school or job training, said Boushehry.

As graduation rates have risen across the country, experts have raised concerns that they may be inflated and graduates may not be prepared for college and careers. At Arsenal, there is mixed data on whether academic gains are on track with the graduation rates. The test that seniors take to graduate recently changed, and Arsenal has only seen a slight improvement.

In 2016, there was a jump in the number of students who received waivers to graduate without passing the state test. But in 2017 the graduation rate continued to rise while the waiver rate held steady.

Some students, like Breeasia Potter, had the academic skills to graduate but needed support. For most of high school, Potter had done well, racking up extra credits and taking honors classes. But in her senior year, life at home became so difficult, Potter said, that she thought she might drop out.

The staff at Arsenal kept her going, she said. Her counselor met with her every month, and when she missed school, one of her teachers would text her. She is now a student at Ivy Tech Community College with plans to become a doctor.

“I was in such a bad place that I honestly wanted to give up, and they made sure I didn’t give up,” Potter said. “I didn’t feel lost at all. I felt important at all times.”

The effort to improve Arsenal’s graduation rate also included a lot of work tracking down students who stopped coming to school but are still counted as part of the senior class.

The graduation team scoured the internet for students who had moved and hunted down records to show they were enrolled in an out-of-state school. They made home visits, spoke to their friends, and looked for them on social media.

“It’s detective work all the way,” said Melody Lundsford, the school registrar.

Yet for all that was accomplished over the last two years, it’s unclear whether the successes will be sustainable in the coming years.

Arsenal is changing. The school will likely see an influx of students in the fall, after the district closes three other high schools. Two leaders that spearheaded the effort to improve graduation rates at the school are no longer with the district. The graduation coach, Stephanie Weddle, left last summer. And the former principal Julie Bakehorn, who made increasing the schools graduation rate a top priority, took a job with the Tindley charter network last year after she was abruptly replaced as head of Arsenal.

The state is also in the midst of changing graduation requirements for students, and it could be increasingly challenging for the school to meet the standards. The Indiana State Board of Education approved controversial new “graduation pathways” in December that would add more to what students must do to graduate. Currently, lawmakers are tweaking the pathways system, proposing changes that could also make it more difficult for students to get waivers from the new requirements.

Given the potential changes to state guidelines, their jobs are going to be harder, said Carlile. But the graduation team will stay focused.

“We all know that we are here for the kids,” she said. “We want to put them in the best possible situation as they start to build their future.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”