OFFERING OPTIONS: VWSD providing programs to grow graduation rates

Published 11:10 pm Saturday, May 21, 2016

At the age of 16, Rita Freeman was adopted, leaving her home in eastern Europe for a new life in Mississippi.

The teen came to the U.S. knowing little English and was already behind as a 16-year-old freshman.

“It was hard because I wasn’t used to so many kids around and a new language,” she said. “It was a cultural shock.”

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Freeman was feeling frustrated by being behind and surrounded by classmates years younger.

“My counselor gave me a packet about Gateway to College, and it was a great match for what I was looking for,” she said. “The staff is really nice, and they do everything they can to help you.”

This year, 19-year-old Freeman is achieving her dreams, graduating high school with 29 college credits.



While graduation rates in the Vicksburg Warren School District have hovered around 50-something percent, the tides are beginning to change thanks to initiatives like Gateway to College.

VWSD Superintendent Chad Shealy said the most recent data released is from the 2013-2014 year, but from internal data, he expects to see a spike for the next year and a continued spike for subsequent years.

In 2013-2014, the graduation rate was 59.8 percent; 2012-2013 was 58.9 percent; 2011-2012 was 56.2 percent; and 2010-2011 was 55.5 percent.

Shealy said it’s hard to compare new numbers coming out to old numbers because requirements have changed, but he still expects to see growth higher than the state average.

“We’re picking up the group we’ve got, and we’re moving forward,” Shealy said. “But it is going to spike.”

The previous accountability model included students who obtained a General Education Diploma (GED).

“For every GED you got a half graduate,” Shealy said. “It’s difficult to compare all of these things apples to apples because they had a section of their accountability model that gave credit to all of those,” he said. “Coming into it, those all went away, which is why we had to change our response to it.”

The same year the GED stipulation was changed, the cohort was lowered from a five-year completion rate to a four-year completion rate for high school students.

“That makes it difficult to celebrate a lot of the growth that you’ve had because it’s changing,” he said, adding subject area tests will now begin to count for 25 percent of a student’s grade.

“As we transition through that whole process, I think one of the best things will be when we get to the point where we’re consistent, and we can really turn around and show real growth,” he said. “Even through we’re showing growth, I believe that growth is actually bigger than the growth that we can show.”

Shealy said he’ll be happy when the numbers are more comparable than they are now, but until then, the district plans to keep pushing forward.

“I think we’re excited about the gains that we’re getting,” he said. “We wont see the full investment of the gains we have invested in with these programs.”



In Mississippi, dropouts are typically seen in tenth grade and after, Shealy said.

“There’s a state law that doesn’t require and child that’s 17 or older to come to school,” he said. “There’s not a thing you can do. You can send them to a truancy officer, but the truancy officer can’t go visit them because there’s a state law that says they don’t have to come.”

Up to that point, truancy officers can go get students and take them to school.

To better understand why students drop out, the district polled them.

“We asked them, ‘Why did you leave school?’” Shealy said. “We got some great answers from them. They said they didn’t feel prepared for the coursework they were in, and they didn’t have positive relationships with anybody at the school.”

Shealy said this was good information that coincided with national statistics showing the top two reasons students drop out are a lack of literacy skills and a lack of relationships.

“We’re putting together a proactive solution for dropout prevention,” he said. “There’s multiple facets within that to create multiple opportunities for graduation.”



Gateway to College, which graduated nearly 30 students last year, provides a scholarship opportunity for high school students to attend Hinds Community College in a career and technical education program.

These students who may not have graduated otherwise are now graduating with not only a high school diploma but also marketable skills, Shealy said.

“One particular student not only had no real intent on finishing high school, but they had absolutely no interest in going to college,” he said. “The student is now currently enrolled in college for the summer semester to complete their coursework at Hinds Community College in computer simulation, animation and design.”

The student already had 19 college credits earned by the time they graduated high school, Shealy said.



Another new program, Attention to Attendance will begin this coming school year, Shealy said.

“What they do is they provide a seat-time documentation,” he said. “It’s a focus on our ability to have children physically here.”

The program looks at and assesses chronic attendance.

“When you have chronic absenteeism, that is an indicator that this child is probably going to be a dropout in the long term,” Shealy said. “It helps us hone in on those specific kids and find out if there’s home problems and provide those wraparound services and contact to the parents, so the kids are face to face in the classroom because they sure can’t learn if they’re not in the classroom.”



The district is rolling out career academies as a way to increase the relevancy of the subject material and help students form the relationships they need to encourage them to stay in school, Shealy said.

“That’s going to be a big fix for us,” he said. “It does two things, it provides that relevancy and there’s an advisory period.”

The first part, a keystone class where students first learn about the 16 different job clusters, is being taught to ninth graders this year, but next year it will be taught to both eight and ninth graders, followed by only eighth graders the following year (2017-2018 school year).

After taking the keystone class, students will go into one of three specialized divisions: ACME (architecture, construction, mechatronics and engineering), CAB (communication, arts and business) or HHS (health and human services).

Students will also be assigned to a specific counselor, who will serve to guide them and help them start thinking about their future and how high school can affect their future.



In the fall, the district will have an opportunity for 60 students to graduate with two years of college credits or an associate’s degree — for free.

River City Early College High School is a new, alternative approach for students in Warren County who are looking for a different high school experience, Shealy said. The school is set to be the second of its kind in the state.

“They’ve seen a tremendous completion rate with that,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the kids who complete early college go on to a four-year institution. We’re really excited about that option being there.”

Shealy said from the early colleges they’ve looked at, he thinks there will be an appeal to students who may be at risk for dropping out.

“There’s kids who just get tired of school, and it’s not for them,” he said. “This will be an avenue where they’re able to get some college focus without the high school experience.”



Another thing the district is considering is Graduation Alliance, which provides an off-site location specifically for high school dropouts.

“A lot of times those dropouts could be due to life experiences,” Shealy said. “Someone could have to go back to work to support their family, or they got undercredited and didn’t see how they were going to make it.”

Graduation Alliance allows students to participate in an at-home virtual classroom.

“We’re anxious to see that be in place,” he said. “We’re trying to provide options and different ways to encourage the kids to want to be here. They have to want to be here after 17 and 18 because they don’t have to be here. That’s the trick.”



The National Dropout Prevention Network presented the Vicksburg Warren School District and the Vicksburg Warren Chamber of Commercie with the Crystal Star Award in San Antonio, Texas, for their partnership in implementing The Leader in Me, an initiative based on the popular book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey.

The award is given for excellence in dropout recovery, intervention and prevention, which fits with the initiative’s purpose to teach children habits to make them more successful in school and more prepared for after-school life.

“That dropout prevention award was actually for the support between the community (through the Vicksburg-Warren County Chamber of Commerce) and the school system,” he said. “That’s one of the four pillars of their organization is community involvement.”

Shealy said there is no other place like Vicksburg in that respect.

“The people who don’t have children, the people who are from here, have moved here, or just have businesses here want to be a part of this,” he said. “They’re all behind the school system. When you talk about the Chamber of Commerce and the things they’re pulling off, it’s remarkable because you just don’t see that anywhere else.”

Moving forward, the school district is working to establish the Leader in Me at all schools up to the eighth grade.