Consider a particular school district in rural North Carolina: 25,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade of predominantly Native American, Caucasian, or African-American descent who feed into seven high schools. This district is one of the largest and most diverse in the state and it is also located in the state’s poorest county. What could be done to give all of these students, with such diverse needs, the best preparation and opportunity for success in academics and life?
Robeson County Public Schools Curriculum Coordinator Brenda Deese and then-Curriculum Specialist Myrna Leggett introduced a mandatory freshman transition program using the Career Choices curriculum to all seven high schools in 2009. They hoped to broaden students’ ideas about their own potential and educate them about the planning and effort necessary to obtain a career that is both rewarding and capable of supporting a middle-class lifestyle. In this course, students examine who they are, what they want in life, and how they will get it, which provides them with an incentive to take high school seriously as an important step toward achieving a fulfilling, self-sufficient life.
“We’re very rural, we have a lot of poverty, and we’re very diverse, so we felt that if we embedded those concepts here, it would allow our students to grow their worldview and to see what opportunities are actually available,” Deese says.
All freshmen district-wide take the required semester-long course called Freshman Seminar. Then, each semester at registration, counselors guide the students in reviewing their 10-year plans to reevaluate their career interests and ensure that they are on track to achieve their goals.
“We had a team and we reviewed several different programs, but we liked the fact that this program had a 10-year plan which allowed for our students to establish direction,” Deese recalls. “Also, the Lifestyle Math workbook allowed for our students to start thinking [about their financial futures] and we hadn’t seen that other curriculums provided such a diverse view of how life would be, or could be.”
The results? So far, Robeson has observed a 23% decrease in the number of dropouts from 2010 to 2011.
“We are seeing a reduction in our dropouts and an increase in our graduation rate,” Deese reports. “I believe that our students have more direction, that they’re certainly more conscientious about life plans and quality of life. It goes beyond the classroom and it looks into adulthood.”
As students begin to discover their passions and strengths, the wide variety of jobs that are available, and how much money is required to live comfortably with a family, all of their coursework takes on a whole new significance.
“It allows students to understand that there are opportunities out there, but there is some self-assessment that they have to do,” Deese says. “You have to look at what courses you need, you have to look at what kind of lifestyle you want. It allows students to determine what kinds of goals they want to set for themselves and so, when they come in there, they can determine, ‘Am I going to be a behavior problem? Am I going to balance myself between sports and academics? How disciplined am I going to be?’ You know, those kinds of things that every 9th grader needs to realize and have a conversation about.”
Parents of all levels of students frequently praise Freshman Seminar and attribute to the course the marked improvements they have observed in their children’s maturity and focus.
“Our parents are very, very supportive of it,” Deese remarks. “It’s applicable to students who are academically gifted all the way down to those students that are EC [exceptional children], and all parents want their children to succeed. This allows students to anchor into a plan as to what’s going to happen or what needs to happen.”
The course also helps to foster relationships between students and school staff, which gives students an additional incentive to do well in school and motivates staff to take their support to the next level, as well.
“[The best part of the program is] the relationships that it forms,” Deese says. “You know, high school is very content-oriented, but this curriculum allows and encourages relationships to form right when the students get there. The teachers and the administration end up having a vested interest in that student and the well-being of that student.”
Deese attributes the program’s success largely to having a team of educators that is committed to the program and to selecting the right teachers.
“I do think that it should be a team effort. I think that there has to be buy-in. And the principals really need to identify which teachers are going to successfully implement the ideals and concepts of the program,” she says. “The most important part is you’ve got to have people that are in it that really want it to be successful for the students.”
One ingredient in Robeson’s success has been a commitment to ensuring that the teachers have the best training available to support students through the process. To accomplish this, Robeson hires certified trainer Lynn Anderson to train its teachers each year. Deese feels the dialogue that these trainings facilitate is invaluable.
“It allows the teachers to voice their concerns, it allows us at the very beginning to determine what’s needed and how we can put a support structure in place at the district level to make sure that they are supported at the schools,” she says. “It also allows them to come together as individual high schools and share how they made that success happen in the classroom, and they enjoy doing that. They enjoy sharing how they approached different lessons, what success they’ve had, or even some of their challenges and brainstorming as to how they can make it even more successful.”
Deese has been traveling the country to speak about the program’s success at various conferences. She feels that Robeson’s results are relevant to a wide range of districts and schools since they pertain to such a large, diverse system with so many special populations.
“One of the things that the curriculum does is it truthfully levels the playing field,” she says. “It allows and encourages student accountability and parent accountability, but if we don’t have the parent accountability in place, it allows the students to really determine what they want for their own lives.”