The Hour: Carver named as one important element in the success at Brien McMahan High School

No simple formula for improving graduation rate at BMHS

By Roz McCarthy, May 6, 2017       SEE THE ARTICLE HERE

For the past two years, Brien McMahon High School has had stellar four-year graduation rates — 95 percent and 96 percent, respectively — after years of scoring in the high 80s. Something must have changed. 

Was it:

a. The APEX program — online courses kids can take for credit?

b. House, the school-wide advisory program?

c. An emphasis on student-centered learning?

d. A change in school culture?

According to Principal Suzanne Koroshetz, it’s not any one of those reasons. Rather, it’s all of them and more, but she starts with the House program.

“The House advisory program has had a halo effect that shows in a lot of places,” she said. 

During this weekly 20-minute meeting, students and their advisors talk about how to be successful — emotionally, socially and academically. Every quarter they look at their GPA’s and form goals for the next quarter. They learn about their learning styles, strategies for studying, and time management. House, she said, is a “systematic conversation about academic success” that has helped kids keep their eyes on the prize — graduation, college and career choices.

Math department chairman Tom O’Neil, a BMHS teacher for 15 years, said he sees a difference in the kids’ attitudes. For years, he despaired that many students thought the goal of school was just to get through the day-to-day academic work. Their understanding of the big picture, the value of their education, seemed weak.

In the past few years, however, he has sensed a change. Now, he said, when freshmen enter the school, “we really try to show them that their education is not about today, but it’s about investing in themselves.” 

He credits Principal Koroshetz with having a strong vision for school improvement. She demands that teachers do what’s best for kids, and, he said, “she doesn’t just say it; she really believes it.” New programs like House, YDP (a comprehensive after-school program designed by teachers and funded by the George Washington Carver Center), and a strong emphasis on academics have made a difference.

“We try to open doors for them,” he said. “We push, we push, we push to get them into high-level courses.” 

Guidance department chairperson Dawn Leeds said having freshmen-only guidance counselors has made a difference. “We get into their lives faster because we are concentrating on the needs of freshmen only.” 

As a freshmen counselor, she looked closely at their performance and reacted quickly when trouble began to brew. “I’d pull them in. I’d say, ‘I see you. What’s happening?’”

In spite of the support systems, in spite of new programs, and in spite of the strong encouragement, some kids still fail or lose course credit because of poor attendance. The APEX program, online courses that students take after school, was designed to help those students. Principal Koroshetz called APEX “summer school during the school year.” 

Teachers monitor the after-school APEX program and offer help while students work on their individual courses. Right now, 36 students are working to gain the credits they need. Students are enrolled for as little as ¼ credit or as much as 2 credits. 

Housemaster Qadir Abdus-Salaam, who supervises the program, said it is “absolutely effective.” As of today, 11 seniors have completed the course work they need to graduate in June. Without this option, they’d either go to summer school or night school next year.

But it’s one thing to have the APEX program available; it’s quite another to make sure students complete their work. “I have to really be on top of them,” he said. “Sometimes I’m walking in the hall after school and I say to a kid, ‘Go to APEX now.’ Sometimes, I pull them into my office, take out a Chromebook and say, ‘Get to work!’”

He relentlessly pursues the kids. “I hate the thought of our young men and women going out without a diploma,” he said.

Clearly, there is no magic formula for improving the graduation rate. Rather, the increase reflects an array of changes in the school. As O’Neil said, “Change is hard and doesn’t happen instantaneously.” 

But for Koroshetz, the biggest change has been that “we put the students in the center of everything. We just work differently now, and all the little things add up to a big change.”

Roz McCarthy is a former Norwalk school board member and Norwalk Public Schools employee. Look for her Chalk Talk column the first of every month. Email her at rozmcc2@gmail.com.