Hayden High School has become the first high school in the Blount County school system to reach the state education department’s goal of graduating 90 percent of its students enrolled in school since the ninth grade, according to the preliminary graduation rate calculation released last month. In the 2006-2007 school year, the latest year for which final graduation rate statistics are available, 97 high schools out of 377 statewide met the goal, according to the state education department.
“We are very excited about this,” said Hayden High School principal Allen Hargett. “We’ve had a high graduation rate here – in the 80s percent range – for the past few years, and I knew we were going to be close this year. I was actually at the state wrestling tournament in Huntsville when they called me from the office and told me we had gone just over 90 percent. I started hollering and people looked around at me. They heard me hollering even over all that noise.”
Hargett said students dropping out of school during the high school years is what causes high schools to miss the target.
“You have to realize that what’s happening at home, the kid’s home situation, is the biggest factor in the dropout rate, not so much what’s happening at school,” he said. “So, we really track every child at this school.”
In spite of what’s happening at home, Hargett said, the school’s approach is to do whatever’s necessary to get students’ attention and appeal to their interests to try to keep them in school. “Any kid who even mentions dropping out, we bring’em in and we beg and we counsel and we do remediation to keep from losing them,” he said.
Strategic instruction and DENS are keys
Hargett attributed the school’s success in minimizing dropouts to two other factors: a classroom concept called strategic instruction and a homeroom approach called DENS, which stands for “dedicated educators nurturing students.”
The strategic-teaching concept has vitalized classroom instruction by focusing on student engagement – basically an approach that involves students in more group discussion and one-on-one interaction with other students as they cover subject matter, as opposed to a more traditional approach with teachers covering the material and spoon-feeding students with lecture style teaching.
“Basically, it’s what outstanding teachers have always done,” Hargett said. He said the administration has encouraged the process and tried to develop ways to spread it throughout the teaching faculty. “The thing that makes me happiest is that this takes your good teachers and makes’em great. It takes your average teachers and makes’em good. And it takes your weak teachers and makes’em… well, better. My teachers have really bought into it.” Hargett attributes part of the reduction in drop-outs to the increased interest and attention that the method generates in students.
The DENS approach starts with students in the ninth grade and basically keeps them intact as a unit with the same home-room teacher through the remainder of high school until graduation. The group becomes close, as does the teacher to individual students in the home room. In addition, the home room teacher provides a number of guidance-type functions that the school guidance counselor cannot personally deliver to all students in the school.
143 of 146 pass all sections of graduation exam
As proof that the approach works, Hargett cited high school graduation exam statistics. “We had 146 students take the high school graduation exam. All but three passed all five sections of it.” Hargett added that students who don’t pass certain sections get individual, targeted assistance on that subject matter to help them pass it.
“I love this school and I love my faculty. I’ve put a lot of pressure on them by opening up the school to visits from other schools, allowing other teachers and administrators to come into their classrooms and watch them teach.” he said. He added that the pressure seems to make them even better.
“What we’re doing works,” Hargett said. “The Mountain Brook school system spends $4000 per student on their kids. We spend $400 per student. I’m not proud that we spend that little, but I’m proud we’re right up there with them on a lot of measures – the graduation rate, kids going to college, and so on. When parents enroll their students in Blount County schools, they’re going to get a real bang for their buck,” he said.