100% Graduation

There’s a real conversation starter, which hangs on a wall outside of Clarksville-Montgomery County School System’s Boardroom. It is a wall-sized poster showing the data of how many students graduated from CMCSS in 2014. It also shows details on how many left for other reasons and how many were considered dropouts. 2014 Graduates It’s the third year that CMCSS has brought attention to its graduation rate in such a visual way.

Last year it was a group photo of kindergartners from Norman Smith Elementary School standing on the playground. The words read: Pick one who shouldn’t graduate: 94% is not enough.

The prior year, in its place was an impressive lineup of football players, representing each of this Middle Tennessee district’s seven high schools. They were standing on the 50-yard line, looking tough and determined with game faces on and in full battle dress. Below them read the text: “95.2% is not enough.”

The annual poster stops visitors in their tracks, and it doesn’t take long to realize that CMCSS’s graduation rate matters.

“One hundred percent graduation,” said CMCSS superintendent Dr. B.J. Worthington, “is our goal, and our community has made the commitment that we’ll not strive for anything less.”

Scoffers and doubters have challenged the lofty goal, but when asked: “Who are you going to tell that they can’t graduate?” the response is always silence. It was that rhetorical question which drove the goal being set at the highest mark in the first place.

When district leaders began its attack in 2004 with a graduation rate of 76 percent, focused interventions and student personalization was key. Profiling the high school dropout was critical and assumptions were proven incorrect. The greatest numbers of CMCSS students not graduating at that time were white girls who were pregnant. With interventions offering pregnant teens options in earning their course credits, the dropout profile has changed to white males who are highly transient, meaning they transfer to schools both within and outside of the district, usually due to parent or guardian circumstances.

Once district leaders felt they had maximized available resources, staff questioned what the community could do to help – not in terms of financial support, but in terms of voice and influence. In 2008, about one dozen local leaders were invited to weigh in and first decide on what the graduation rate goal should be for the district.

“It was the community leaders who said the goal had to be 100%; and while that scared us a bit, we saw their point and haven’t turned back,” Dr. Worthington said. The group began developing a campaign they branded: “100% Graduation is Clarksville’s Business!” It kicked off from the steps of the county courthouse with local dignitaries and the testimonial of a former student who got the needed push and help to graduate.

The local newspaper publisher committed his graphics staff to develop a logo. Others on the committee began a successful lobby to have signs installed at all entry points to the city with the logo and slogan boldly communicating the goal. Other local media began telling the stories, and businesses – both large and small -- got on board. A list of non-financial commitments was developed that businesses and organizations (including the City Council and County Government) could sign professing their partnership. More than 100 businesses, civic, government and faith-based organizations have signed up to be a part of the 100% Graduation Project. A decal was placed on the door of every community partner with the 100% logo.

Partnerships formed and they took on a variety of looks, with business marquees encouraging students to a local fast-food chain restaurant manager setting up a study area for student workers and requiring them to bring in their progress reports for review. This no-nonsense manager would cut the students’ work hours if grades dropped. It was an effective incentive.

Since its inception, the 100% committee has expanded its reach and involvement, including: hosting a student leadership summit to identify peer mentors; coordinating several school tours to get more community exposure to education successes and challenges; sponsoring and staffing activities centered around graduation at community events; appearing on videos and news features; and speaking to local civic groups and other communities about how to mobilize similar efforts to support high school graduation.

The presentation sells itself with the committee members making four key points about the results of improved graduation rates:
• A safer community
• An improved quality of life
• A stronger economy
• A brighter future

The vision for graduation must begin early for students. Reading on grade level is so important at a young age that the state of Tennessee plans the number of prisons it will build based on the reading level of children in the third grade. The majority of all inmates in state and federal prisons are high school dropouts.

Over one hundred organizations have joined this effort since June 5, 2008. To view a copy of the commitment contract, visit

The CMCSS graduation rate moved from 78.5% in 2006 to 85.7% in 2007, to 88.3% in 2008, to 90.8% in 2009, 91% in 2010, 93.5% in 2011, 95.2% in 2012, 94% in 2013 and 93.5% in 2014. All high schools in the school system exceeded their individual target rates. These results came from the focus and hard work of students, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents and community members who support the schools.

When a community believes in something and takes responsibility for making it happen, great things can take place. That is the case in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Annual Graduation Rates

Please contact Candy Johnson at (931) 920-7955 or if you are interested in supporting this community initiative.

For a contract to become a 100% partner, click here.

For a list of businesses and organizations that have signed up to be part of the 100% Graduation Initiative, please click here.