A TEAM Approach

Graduation coaches help students finish high school and move on

Contracts, books by Covey, goal-setting sessions … sounds like a CEO’s office, right? Wrong.

It’s the sunny and spacious Virginia Beach office of guidance counselor Adrienne Pearl, hired in February 2013 as Princess Anne High School’s “graduation coach.” The contracts aren’t legally binding; the book (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens) is by Sean Covey, son of Stephen Covey, and the goal setting is about graduation, not goods and services, but the stakes are potentially just as high—make that higher.

Pearl joins the ranks of a growing number of colleagues in all seven Hampton Roads cities hired within the last two to three years to help ensure that students at risk of not graduating not only graduate, but do so on time. Reasons why a diploma seems out of reach for some students are as individual as the students themselves, with poor academic performance, lack of parental support, low motivation, and a wide range of personal challenges playing key roles.

Similarly, high school drop-out statistics vary widely from city to city and school to school. That data is available elsewhere, so this isn’t a story about “What,” but “What are we going to do about it?” For an increasing number of schools, part of the answer lies in fullor part-time graduation coaches.

According to Dr. James Pohl, principal of Princess Anne High, state-mandated ratios dictate the number of guidance counselors a school is allotted. Since his school was understaffed in Guidance, he requested a counselor to serve in a graduation coach capacity, calling this approach, “the ultimate in differentiation (differentiated instruction).”

Though overall graduation rates had improved at his school, rates of low SES (socioeconomic status) students had not, making it the single academic benchmark that prevented this nationally- ranked school from achieving the federally-mandated NCLB “Adequate Yearly Progress” in 2011–2012. Pohl notes that, regardless of how one may feel about NCLB (No Child Left Behind), “it helped schools focus on sub-groups and accountability in general.”

As a full-time graduation coach at Princess Anne, Pearl initially targeted seniors with multiple failures. But she has her eyes on freshman, noting that the challenges typically start in 9th grade “and follow a child.”

Her multi-layered strategy begins with formal student surveys and informal teacher input followed by an introduction to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens and “Student Goal Contracts” based on those habits. She keeps the process moving through weekly student meetings, unannounced observations in classes, conversations with parents, and tools such as “Homework Trackers” and “What Didn’t I Do and Why?” handouts, all monitored on a spreadsheet.

As Pohl, summarizes, “ … she tries to get teachers, students and parents all on the same page.” After all, this is serious business, and these teens aren’t mere statistics to any of the key stakeholders.

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