Road to Graduation

October 28, 2020

Graduation 2019

Receiving a high school diploma is not merely a culminating event; it opens the door to a lifetime of opportunity. For CMCSS, student success is a core foundation. “Earning a high school diploma can translate into success after graduation for our students,” said Christy Houston, principal of Montgomery Central High School. Each year, the high schools remain laser-focused on student achievement, and graduation is always a priority. The COVID-19 pandemic did not deter the mission, and CMCSS schools maintained some of the state’s highest graduation rates. 

“We like to tell them that graduation is one of a very short list of things in life that you never get a second chance to complete,” added Dr. Schanda Doughty, principal of Rossview High School. 

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the events of 2020 in devastating ways. Seniors lost many end-of-year events and activities. However, the students and educators refused to let the pandemic slow academic progress. Working together in new and creative ways, CMCSS maintained a 94.3-percent graduation rate. This was down only one-tenth of a percentage point from the previous year. Comparatively, the state average dropped to 89.6% after a steady climb in the last decade. 

“[The pandemic] didn’t change the focus, but it just simply changed the methods. Students were not in our buildings, so we had to rely on technology and parent and student contacts to ensure progress was being made, and follow up when it wasn’t,” said Houston. 

There is a defining difference at CMCSS, a mentality rooted in the culture of the district. For over a decade, district leaders have focused on the relationship between student and school, understanding that achievement begins with relationships. This idea extends beyond the classroom to counselors, administrators, and community leaders. Student success is engrained in the psyche and now a way of life, not just a goal to achieve. Dr. Theresa Muckleroy, Middle College at APSU administrator, explained, “We don’t feel 99% is good enough. What would you say to that student who was the one-percent that you didn’t support?”

In a traditional year, administrators continuously assess the graduation needs of seniors. All principals look at the seniors who may be behind, whether it be credit recovery or at risk. The principals begin to contact these seniors and their families. “We aren’t afraid of having multiple face-to-face meetings with families,” said Muckleroy. “Whatever we must do to connect with these students.”

During assessments, there is a commitment to keep students motivated. Administrators watch students who may be falling behind or failing classes required for graduation. “You cannot wait until the end of the semester to address these concerns,” said one administrator. “At that point, you’re too late.” 

Careful monitoring and meeting with students and families are done to encourage these students to reach their potential. These meetings would not be as effective if the administrators had not already built this connection. “The hardest conversation is to call a parent and say ‘I’m so sorry, but your student didn’t pass their classes and won’t get to walk.’” For an administrator passionate about student achievement, this is a conversation they try to avoid at all costs. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, an unsettling fear descended on CMCSS educators. These students, some of whom overcame tremendous adversity and some still pushing through, were now at risk for being lost. 

However, the pandemic only amplified the power of the relationship.  “We [administrators] created a team of teachers across all subject areas to assist us in working with seniors who were not on track to graduate,” Doughty shared. “We assigned each of these teachers a list of students they worked with via Zoom, phone conferences, etc. Many of our students were working long hours to support their families, so these teachers’ work went well beyond a traditional school day.  We created schedules to meet the students whenever they could meet to ensure they had the support they needed.”  

If it meant going door to door, administrators were ready. “Additionally, there were issues with laptops, internet access, etc. which posed new problems that we were not used to having.  Our teams went above and beyond to reach students, even if it meant leaving resources on their porch. Personal relationships with students are the key to ensuring their success. If kids know you care about them and want them to be successful, they will stay focused on the shared goal of graduation (even during a pandemic),” Doughty said.

After May, high school seniors received special permission to come into school and finish out required classes for the year. In June and July, teachers and administrators came in and volunteered their time to work with the remaining students.

In the end, the dedication paid off. “Failure is just not an option for any of our [students], and the path to success is different for almost all of them,” said Dr. Doughty.