Rural District Hires Graduation Coaches

Kevin R. Burnette, previously a math teacher, now works as a mentor to motivate high school seniors who are at risk of dropping out. By analyzing attendance records and standardized-test scores, Burnette identifies students at West-Oak Senior High School who require additional support. He reaches out to these students in order to find ways to assist them in passing their classes and obtaining their diplomas. West-Oak High is situated in Oconee County, a rural area in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in the northwest region of South Carolina.

This academic year, the Oconee County school district, with 10,400 students, decided to utilize federal economic-stimulus funds to hire "adequate-yearly-progress coaches," known as graduation coaches, at the secondary school level. Burnette serves as the graduation coach at West-Oak High, which possesses the lowest graduation rate among the four high schools in the county. In 2009, the school’s graduation rate was reported as 71.5 percent, reflecting the percentage of 9th graders in the school who obtain a regular high school diploma within four years or less. This rate also includes students who entered 9th grade elsewhere and transferred to West-Oak.

The graduation rates at West-Oak in 2008 and 2007 were 71.2 percent and 76.5 percent, respectively. Students with special needs who earn a certificate instead of a regular diploma, as well as those who leave school to pursue a General Educational Development (GED) credential, are counted against the school’s graduation rate. Scott M. Smith, the principal of West-Oak, expresses his belief that having a graduation coach has been beneficial. He anticipates that the graduation rate for the current school year will increase by several percentage points compared to the previous year, although he acknowledges that they still have progress to make. The principal expected to award 231 diplomas on June 5, compared to 163 in the previous academic year.

Interview with Kevin R. Burnette, Graduation Coach at West-Oak Senior High School:

Q: What types of data did you utilize to identify seniors at risk of dropping out at the start of the year?

A: We examined data on students retaking classes needed for graduation, attendance records, and scores from the South Carolina High School Assessment Program (HSAP) to identify students who had not yet passed at least one part of the test.

Q: In what ways did you influence and encourage seniors to remain in school and graduate?

A: I aimed to reassure them that it was not too late to achieve their graduation. Many of our students were behind in two or three classes, and they felt overwhelmed by the amount of work they had to catch up on. I provided them with reassurance that, through hard work and the support of their teachers, they could indeed succeed and earn their diplomas. Additionally, I emphasized the importance of having options in life, which a diploma would provide them with that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Q: What were the main reasons some seniors dropped out this year, despite receiving special encouragement to persevere?

A: I discovered that there were various reasons why students dropped out this year. Some had already secured job opportunities with family members and did not see the value of obtaining a diploma. Others had fallen significantly behind and felt overwhelmed by the amount of work required to catch up, making them reluctant to do so.

Q: What are your plans for the next school year in terms of using data to identify and monitor students at risk of dropping out?

A: My plans for the coming school year involve working closely with our 9th-grade students to help them understand the significance of a high school diploma. I also intend to implement a new system, developed by our dropout-prevention team, to identify at-risk students. This system assigns points to students based on various criteria, such as failing the exit exam, previous behavioral issues, excessive absences, and falling behind in coursework. Students with higher point totals will be considered more at risk of dropping out.

He states that he comes across students who have a limited perspective of the world. They haven’t had much exposure to the various job opportunities outside of Westminster, where the school is located, or the surrounding area. In order to expand their horizons, Burnette makes it a point to meet individually with each of the seniors he has identified to discuss their future prospects. He mentions that some students want to attend college but are unsure of the necessary steps to make that happen. Many others simply want to secure a job as quickly as possible in fields like construction or plumbing.

"I emphasize to them that obtaining a high school diploma opens up a world of possibilities," Burnette emphasizes. "Working for your father in construction may sound appealing now, but five years down the line, you may discover other interests."

Burnette mentions that he only had one conversation with some of the students, and they took the necessary actions to get back on track. However, he developed an ongoing relationship with approximately half of the 76 students and met with them throughout the school year. He estimates that he may have influenced around 20 students to change their minds about dropping out. Nevertheless, there were still 11 seniors who ultimately left school, including two whom he and the school police officer visited at home after they stopped attending school. Despite their legal ability to decide to quit school at 17, they couldn’t be persuaded to return.

Rural Profile

Statistical information about districts serving rural areas:

– 19% of the U.S. student population is served.

– The graduation rate for the class of 2007 was 72%.

– There are 8,059 districts in rural areas.

– The median student enrollment is 536.

– The median number of schools is 2.

– There was a 3 percentage-point improvement in the graduation rate from 1997 to 2007.

(Source: EPE Research Center, 2010)

Burnette expresses his goal for the upcoming school year is to begin working with the freshman class. "I believe that if we can support them through their first year of high school," he explains, "they will be less likely to dropout."

Principal Smith mentions that Oconee County is taking steps to identify struggling students by utilizing data as early as middle school. When students enroll at West-Oak High, some are assigned to an additional math or English class to assist them in passing 9th grade English or Algebra 1. "We used to wait until students weren’t successful on their South Carolina exit exams before offering assistance," Smith explains. However, that approach has changed.


  • isabelbyrne

    Isabel Byrne is a 32-year-old blogger and student who resides in the United States. Byrne is an advocate for education and has written extensively on the topic of education reform. Byrne is also a proponent of the use of technology in the classroom and has spoken at numerous conferences on the topic.