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Garner High School reduces dropout rate by 75 percent

The Wake County Public School System has set a goal of annually graduating at least 95 percent of its students ready for productive citizenship as well as higher education or a career. Last year the district had its highest four-year graduation rate, 86.1 percent. This was achieved in part through a concerted effort across the district to reduce the dropout rate, which measures the proportion of students who drop out in a single year without completing high school. In 2011, WCPSS had a dropout rate of 3.24 percent. In 2015, the rate was down by one-third, to 2.15. Garner Magnet High School had the most dramatic reduction in its dropout rate, going from 5.62 in 2011 to 1.42 last year, a 75 percent decrease. Here is a look at how they did it.

Don’t give up

Miguel De La Torre doesn’t want to leave anyone out.

With little prompting, he rattles off the laundry list of teachers, counselors, and administrators at Garner Magnet High School who guided him from frustrated drop-out candidate with an uncertain future to hopeful Wake Tech student with a bright one.

“Mr. Bondurant, Ms. Tracy, they told me what I needed to do to be successful, to be able to graduate,” he says, referring to counselor Benjamin Bondurant and Dean of Students Tracy Taylor.

“I really felt supported by [Civics teacher] Mr. [Thomas] Nassif. Of course, [math teacher] Ms. [Darla]Baker. Another teacher, Mr. [William] Crain, I made a good bond with him. He gave me good advice as well, to push me to that certain academic maturity I needed. Coach [Corey] Lyons, he helped me develop as well, as far as ‘Don’t give up … you have to push through.'”

Try as he might, Miguel did leave someone out: himself.

“I’ve never really had anyone who worked quite as hard as Miguel did,” says Baker, who often stayed after school to help Miguel with his math homework. “He would spend hours, one and a half to two hours every day, to get extra help. If he was not with me, he was with another teacher.”

(Video Credit: James Banks)

No magic pill

Miguel, who emigrated with his family from Mexico in 2008, is part of a larger success story at Garner High.

In 2011, the school had 136 dropouts, a rate of 5.62 percent, the highest among traditional Wake County high schools. Last year, the school had just 38 dropouts for a rate of 1.42 percent, among the lowest in the district. That’s a 75 percent reduction in the dropout rate in five years.

Their secret? There isn’t one. “There’s no magic pill,” Dean of Students Taylor says.

It mostly comes down to hard work, both on the part of school staff and the students themselves. “I don’t think we’re doing anything that other high schools aren’t doing,” says Assistant Principal Joe Bundens, who’s been at Garner as a teacher or administrator for 18 years. “There are pieces that, when you take them in total, have probably helped. But I really believe it’s the strength of the faculty here. We have a lot of good people who care about our kids being successful.

“That’s why we’re in this business. We bend over backwards to help kids.”

Big push

Modesty aside, Garner staff have been working smarter as well as harder to reach students in danger of dropping out.

For example, former Principal Drew Cook, now Wake County Schools’ senior director for high school programs, implemented a faculty mentor program for at-risk seniors four years ago. Faculty members are assigned to check in with students to ensure they’re keeping up with assignments and to offer assistance as needed.

Bundens mentored one student who just needed a monthly check-in. Another who struggled with health problems had him frequently chasing down the student’s teachers to get make-up work. “Sometimes it takes a little push, sometimes it takes a big push,” Bundens says. “It depends on the kid.”

Teachers and administrators also have worked with students who are behind in required courses to rearrange schedules and permit make-up assignments. “We’re not standing at the door giving kids diplomas,” Taylor says. “We’re making sure they complete their courses at a level of achievement that is appropriate.”

I’m going to do this

That extra hand up can make all the difference, lifting a struggling student out of hopelessness.

During his sophomore year, Miguel had to travel back to Mexico to deal with a family crisis and was out of school for an extended period of time. Then-Principal Cook worked with him to help him catch up.

Though that meant he was still taking sophomore-level classes as a junior, Miguel persevered to later graduate on time. “I had to struggle with certain classes, especially math,” Miguel says. “It was challenging. But, at the end of the day, it was me who had to put in the extra effort. I was talking myself into saying, ‘Oh, I’m no good at math.’ But you have to say to yourself, ‘I’m going to do this. Maybe I won’t get an A, but I’ll at least get an 80 to be able to pass the class with some good effort.'”

Cross that stage

Principal Carter Hillman, in his second year at Garner, is quick to deflect praise to those who have been at the school longer than he has. “The greatest credit goes to the teachers and the work that they’re doing,” he says. “They’re the ones adding more time to their workload, spending time after hours, tutoring, grading tests, then re-grading make-up tests.”

He says he’s now trying to build on “the culture that all students can learn.”

“We’re not going to allow you not to learn,” Hillman says. “We’re not going to allow you not to be successful. That goes toward building a relationship with the student. When students start tasting success, especially when they haven’t for a few years, they start getting addicted to that success.”

A Ninth Grade Center, opened at Garner High last year, is aimed at making sure students are on course to graduate well before their senior year.

For those needing a push – and maybe a bit of tough love – at crunch time, Hillman and his staff are happy to provide it.

“I tell kids, ‘Do you want to work your butt off for three months or do you want to see me for three months, plus another year?'” Hillman says. “More often than not, they are responding, because they do want to cross that stage.”

Matt Dees

Matt Dees is a senior administrator in Communications for the Wake County Public School System.