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Success Stories

How Everett Public Schools Went from a 62% to 95% On-Time Graduation Rate

everett public schools WAIn 2005, Everett Public Schools (WA) found themselves with a "serious problem," in the words of Cathy Woods, director of on-time graduation. The district's graduation rate was 62 percent—a full 12 percentage points lower than the Washington state average.

It would be an understatement to say that Everett has improved this number over time. Today, Everett Public Schools has an incredible 95.9 percent on-time graduation rate.

What can we learn from their journey that we can take back to our districts?

To find out exactly how they got here, we chatted with Becky Ballbach, director of student services; Cathy Woods, director of on-time graduation; and Laura Phillips, director of MTSS-wellness.

Becky, Cathy, and Laura shared how they've shifted from "numbers to names" to ensure students' college, career, and life readiness, the role of social-emotional learning (SEL) in this work, and how they're using Panorama to support each and every student. They also touched on how they are approaching the 2020-2021 school year given the shift to distance learning.

You can read our conversation below or access the full webinar recording here

Can you give us an overview of Everett's journey to improve the on-time graduation rate?

Cathy Woods: Our focus on on-time graduation began in the early 2000s. From the school board and down, we noticed we had a serious problem. Everett had a 62 percent graduation rate in 2005 -- but at the state level, the graduation rate was 74 percent at the time. We knew we had to get all hands on deck because this was unacceptable and we were failing our children. It began with cleaning up our data. Where are the students going who are leaving our schools, and why are they leaving our schools? 

We moved from a 62 percent graduation rate in 2005 to a 90 percent rate in 2015. Last year, our four-year graduation rate was 95.9 percent. It's been about making sure that it's about every single student, and it's all hands on deck. It is the number one goal in our strategic plan. A significant amount of time, energy, resources, and staffing has been invested to make sure that we are doing right by our students and reaching that goal. 

Becky Ballbach: To build on that, our focus has gone from all students to each student. We realized that we needed to shift from just helping students walk across the stage, to helping them reach their future goals. The foundational goal that "all students graduate college and career ready" was expanded to "all students will graduate college, career, and life ready." And at the same time, it became obvious that our work towards this goal had to begin in kindergarten. With that, some of our systems expanded to include social-emotional learning components to help the student be prepared for graduation, post-high school, and life.

"Our focus has gone from all students to each student. We realized that we needed to shift from just helping students walk across the stage, to helping them reach their future goals. The foundational goal that 'all students graduate college and career ready' was expanded to 'all students will graduate college, career, and life ready.'"

becky-ballbach–Becky Ballbach, Director of Student Services

I’ve heard you talk about shifting “from numbers to names,” which is so powerful. Could you explain what you mean by that and how you've made this part of the culture at Everett?

CW: The only way we could shift the numbers was by knowing that these are individual students with names and stories. To get our graduation rate to 95.9 percent, we needed to know each student, their story, the strengths they bring, and the needs that they have -- and then develop them so they not only graduate on time, but graduate ready for next steps. As part of the culture of our On-Time Graduation (OTG) meetings every week, we share success stories of our students rather than just talking about what we're doing or the actions we're taking. It's more inspiring to talk about individuals with names than it is to talk about high graduation rates. It's about the kids.

Panorama Student Success is one of the ways we can visualize moving from numbers to names. We can build individual plans around students, or we can see that we're not meeting the needs of an entire group of students and figure out what we need to change. Being able to monitor everything together is so helpful, in addition to being able to listen to student voice and move our system to meet their needs. 

 

Laura Phillips: When I came into Everett in 2011, the process was well on the way with OTG and moving from numbers to names. I was greeted with a list of kids and very detailed plans on what we were going to do to help kids that were struggling academically or socially and emotionally. It was figuring out, kid by kid, where is the point of intrigue to help that particular student? I love that our work has shifted so dramatically with the Student Success platform. We now have a highly adaptive visualization tool where we can monitor our work with kids, in addition to sifting through and filtering those kids so that we can put them into group support settings.

 

"I love that our work has shifted so dramatically with the Panorama Student Success platform. We now have a highly adaptive visualization tool where we can monitor our work with kids, in addition to sifting through and filtering those kids so that we can put them into group support settings."

laura-phillips–Laura Phillips, Director of MTSS-Wellness

What's been the role of social-emotional learning in preparing students for both on-time graduation and college, career, and life?

BB: Social-emotional learning has gained a lot of momentum in education. It is front and center. Fifteen or 20 years ago in our district, our counselors were the leaders of SEL and were the ones who delivered all of the SEL curriculum in our district. We thought that that was all we needed to do to check the SEL box.

Times have changed. Now, students are presenting with more and more challenging issues when they come to us. It has become increasingly evident that everyone in the school needs to be a participant and needs to own SEL. We have since moved towards a school-wide model. It's taken the last three to four years to convince our leaders in our schools that SEL needs to be a foundational part of the school culture -- in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the hallways, out on the playground. When everyone shares a common vocabulary, that's when we can transform the school culture and effectively help our students and one another embrace those skills that are so connected to academic learning. 

 

How did you generate buy-in for SEL and how are you measuring progress?

BB: I've been on a mission to move SEL into the school and into the classroom for quite a long time. It's been a "slow go," but it's been a persistent and consistent conversation. Every year, I would get a little more funding to add more schools. I would talk to principals one on one or in meetings to see if they were ready to start implementing the SEL curriculum we use, Second Step. In addition, we've seen demand on the part of teachers as students come to us with more challenges and barriers to learning. Teachers are saying, "I need some help. I don't know how to effectively engage all of my students."

Then, the missing link became how do we measure social-emotional learning? I had the privilege of attending a conference where a school district in California talked about using Panorama. They were sharing their Panorama data and how they were using the tool to measure students' social-emotional learning. That's when we began conversations with Panorama and piloted with a few schools. Again, you create the demand when you show what the tool can do. When we presented Panorama to all of our administrators, they were all raising their hand and saying, "I want that too. I want to have access to that information, my student voices, the data that can help us in our school."

CW: When students first took the Panorama surveys, we saw at our high schools that students' sense of belonging was low. We set goals around that and identified the steps we could take to make a difference. We implemented a lot of small-cost but high-reward practices such as positive breathing at the door and sending notes home.

However, in the first year or so, we found that we weren't increasing sense of belonging as much. We were instead increasing positive teacher-student relationships. That's when we realized that sense of belonging is among the groups of students themselves. We shifted our approach to doing things like co-constructing norms within groups, circle time in high schools, changing seating charts more frequently, and implementing time in group settings for students to get to know each other. That's when we started seeing improvement. It took being relentless. When we weren't successful in one area, we looked at how we could change our approach.

"When students first took the Panorama surveys, we saw at our high schools that students' sense of belonging was low. We set goals around that and identified the steps we could take to make a difference."

circle-cropped (3)-1–Cathy Woods, Director of On-Time Graduation

How will the realities of today’s schools, including increased inequities, trauma, and logistical challenges, inform your approach to the 2020-2021 school year?

CW: No matter what the situation is, we're not going to give up. This is too important for our students and their lives. We don't know what it's going to look like when we come back in the fall or if it will be a blended learning environment. But we do know we have the capacity to figure it out and do what's best by our kids.

Right now, our counselors, teachers, and administrators are reaching out individually to our kids if we haven't heard from them. The first step -- and it always should have been the first step, but people are really getting it now -- is, "Are you OK?" When we're back in the classroom and a kid isn't doing what you'd expect, I hope that what comes out of this is that the first approach isn't "Do this thing." The first approach is still: "Are you OK?"

BB: We don't know the way forward, but we know that we will find the way. During this time, taking care of peoples' social-emotional well-being is now thrust into the spotlight. We have seized upon this time to bring social-emotional health to the forefront.

We are leading weekly webinars to take care of our adult SEL. We've looked at the research from leaders and the experts in the field to inform us and teach us, and we've shared their work every Friday through these webinars. Over 500 of our teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, and counselors have joined every week. The content is resonating with them and striking a chord. We've been talking about strategies for taking care of ourselves and how that will translate to helping our students and families now, but also when we return. 

LP: We've been highlighting for our adults that student social-emotional learning requires that adults have a strong, elevated sense of their own social-emotional well-being as well. We can't teach Second Step or another curriculum if the adult has a limited capacity for their own self-regulation. We are on a mission to flip the coin and see this as an opportunity to foster community and togetherness.

Learn more about Everett's journey in our "District Leader's Guide to Graduating College, Career, and Life Ready Students."

Topic(s): Success Stories

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