Instructional Leadership in Action

How my school district improved graduation rates with equity

by Mary Beth Tack on Feb 14, 2017


Over the past few years, I have noticed something in the principals I work with. As their work has gotten more complex and intense, the question of “Why am I doing this work?“ starts to come up more often.

So, at the end of the last school year, I asked each principal to interview a student they regarded as a main reason as to why they came to work every day and entered the profession. The video clips we got back were inspiring. One principal filmed a student whose family came from Mexico, struggled with English in middle school and became an amazing leader. Another talked to a high-achieving student who was touched to tears to be one of the principal’s main motivations for their work.

As the director of teaching and learning, I had to ask myself: What story do I have to tell? What’s my “why”?

The simple answer is: Because high quality instruction, learning and equity for all is a mission and passion in the work of our district. We are making a difference — and we can back it up.

High graduation rates for all students

My district, the Kelso School District in southwest Washington State, serves approximately 5,000 students. Since I started as an administrator 20 years ago, the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch has risen from 36% to currently 57%. Many of our students face serious challenges at home and every year those challenges seem to become more complex.

So it’s no surprise that issues of equity and removing barriers to educational achievement have been our top priority. Our efforts show success. Graduation rates from our high school have increased over most years and have consistently been higher than the state rate.

We are part of the Graduation Equity Initiative, a project collecting the key practices and processes of school districts in Washington State that have had positive impacts on graduation rates.

Kelso School District (KSD) graduation rates
Kelso High School's adjusted cohort graduation rate in percent
Class of 2011 KSD State
All 87.3 76.6
Low Income 81.4 65.2
English Language Learners 75.0 52.5
Special Education 82.2 56.6
Class of 2013 KSD State
All 87.7 76.0
Low Income 82.7 64.6
English Language Learners 85.7 50.4
Special Education 85.7 54.4
Homeless 70.6 45.1
Class of 2015 KSD State
All 82.5 78.1
Low Income 74.2 68.0
English Language Learners 60.0 55.8
Special Education 68.2 57.9
Homeless 44.4 51.9

So what did we do?

First of all, we did not focus on graduation rates, we focused on meeting the needs of kids.

We started with a committee comprised of community members, teachers, administrators, parents and students that took a deep look at our data and where we needed to be.

We realized that our school system needed more options and opportunities that meet the needs of all students. Based on this premise we built a strong road map around early learning, quality instruction and career, college and community ready focus.

Equity and access is at the heart of Kelso's work. We realized that improving access was just one part of the puzzle. Offering high quality instruction, spotting early signs of trouble and giving our teachers a clear path to growing their practice were going to be equally important.

Improving access

Our initial focus was on giving students more opportunities to learn and prevent them from falling behind. In our alternative high school (started in 2002), we introduced a hybrid learning approach: classroom lessons combined with an online curriculum helping students stay on track. The school also emphasizes a service-learning, interest-driven focus to better prepare students for life after graduation.

Our initial focus: giving students more opportunities to learn and prevent them from falling behind.

The alternative high school made a difference for some students but it was not the best solution for everyone. We also worked on providing better after-school support and more daily options for students. At the same time, we expanded our online learning offerings and started the Kelso Virtual Academy, a web-based educational program providing instructor-led online courses to middle and high school students.

Over the last two years, we also changed all high schools in Kelso into trimesters. This gives students a better chance to recapture credits they failed and accelerates them towards better outcomes for their secondary training.

Students now have the opportunity to acquire 7.5 credits per year (15 classes) versus the 6 credits per year (12 classes). Students have deeper connections with their teacher and content. Failure rates have decreased, student access to dual-credit options has dramatically increased and we are forecasting an even higher graduation rate.

Laying the foundation for better instruction

We spent a lot of time and energy on providing all students with opportunities to learn. But even more important, we redoubled our efforts to improve instruction to ensure that students can achieve at higher levels.

Improving classroom instruction has been a key factor in Kelso's long-term success in driving educational achievement for all students.

To help us implement high-quality instructional practices, we adopted the Center for Educational Leadership’s (CEL) 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning™ instructional framework and the accompanying 5D+™ Rubric.

It’s now widely accepted that a high-quality framework and rubric are key for better teaching and learning. However, it’s hard to overstate how a common language of instruction paired with the knowledge of what good teaching looks like really changed instruction across our district.

Today, after almost five years of use of CEL’s framework and rubric across all subject areas, we have taken our instruction to a new level. Coupled with AVID — a set of strategies to develop critical thinking, literacy, and math skills across all content areas — we built a culture of rigor in classrooms that translates into high achievement and career readiness.

The power of inquiry

Our work with CEL has not only changed the way we teach. It has also changed the way we think about how to improve our practice.

Getting better at teaching is an ongoing process that requires practice, reflection, curiosity and support. In our work with CEL, we have learned to use cycles of inquiry, a process that helps teachers and principals work through a problem of practice in a structured way.

We are now in our fourth year of 100 percent of teachers and principals working with an inquiry cycle. Often this work is done as a team and focused on an equity-related problem of practice.

Over time, with a lot of support and a clear focus on growth — not evaluation — the response and results for the inquiry cycle work have been overwhelmingly positive. 

Having everybody on board and embracing inquiry is a great step forward. In the beginning, many teachers and principals saw the “inquiry project” as another hoop to jump through. It looked like another addition to their workload rather than a more structured way to organize the existing workload around improving instructional skills.

Once it became clear that the inquiry process could really grow practice and help students, we encountered another hurdle. Initially teachers were hesitant to take risks. They picked problems of practice for which a positive result was virtually guaranteed rather than difficult challenges with more uncertain outcomes.

But over time, with a lot of support and a clear focus on growth — not evaluation — the response and results for the inquiry cycle work have been overwhelmingly positive. Seeing the impact of this work has been a powerful motivator for our staff. I believe it’s one of the most important factors contributing to our success.

Building support systems

Providing access and constantly improving core instruction are key pillars of our efforts to help students make good choices for their education and career after high school. But just offering an excellent educational experience is not enough. It’s also important to be able to act quickly and effectively if things go wrong.

Strong support systems help the district spot problems early and find ways to remove barriers.

And things do go wrong for students. That’s why we have built strong support systems and several ways to spot problems early and find ways to remove barriers.

For example, we are constantly refining and improving our data dashboard that keeps track of important warning and success indicators. This data is readily available to teachers, principals and administrators and we do spend time on training them how to use it.

In addition, a dedicated team of counselors, intervention specialists and administrators takes a deeper look at data for students that are struggling and creates support plans and a culture of high behavioral and academic expectations tailored to their needs.

The way ahead

Our district has been on an exciting journey but there are still many ways we can improve. We continue to focus on our road map district goals of early learning, quality instruction and career, college and community readiness.

In fact, it’s our explicit goal to have 100 percent of students leave with a graduation diploma, with an increased number going to two- or four-year college. That means we need to better connect our instruction with college requirements, get more students into rigorous classes or College in the High School/Advanced Placement classes and more.

It will be hard work, there will be setbacks and we’ll always identify new areas for improvement.

But we’ll know “why” we do it. And that makes a difference. 

Topics: Principal Support, Inquiry Cycle, Partnership Stories, Equity

About the author: Mary Beth Tack

Mary Beth Tack is the director of teaching and learning for Kelso School District. She has been an educator in Kelso for the past 25 years, serving as teacher, assistant principal, principal and director of secondary education. She was the planning facilitator for Kelso's Loowit Alternative High School and is committed to providing high quality educational experiences for all.

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