Spotlight

Personalizing My School: Perfect Parent Attendance

by RICHARD ESPARZA

During my first year as a high school principal, I had to suspend a senior because of his terrible behavior. His mom came in to talk to me about readmitting her son. She broke down in tears in my office, saying she needed him to graduate so he could help support the family because there was no husband at home.

I had to be the one to inform her that her son had earned only six credits, all in the areas of physical education and vocational classes. She responded that she had fed him breakfast and given him lunch money for four years so he could graduate from high school and get a good-paying job.

That is when I realized how impersonal our system really was. Not only that, but what a poor job we had done communicating with our parents!

Once Failing
I could describe the importance of personalization in schools by pointing to educational research. Instead, I can tell the story of how our high school used personalization to improve academic achievement.

The story begins eight years ago in a small comprehensive high school of 375 students in rural eastern Washington. We were listed by the Washington Department of Public Instruction as a failing school for years before my arrival. The student demographics looked like this: 84 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch; 90 percent were students of color; parent attendance at parent/teacher conferences amounted to 10 percent.

In regards to academic achievement, our school had a 30 percent graduation rate, only 20 percent met the state’s reading standard, 8 percent the writing standard and 6 percent the math standard.

We operated like a typical high school today. We scheduled parent/teacher conferences during the day (inconvenient for parents) in an arena-style setting. Parents would report to the gym and try to see seven different teachers for hopefully five-minute conferences regarding their child’s progress.

The teacher’s job was to talk to 150 different sets of parents during this event. I think you have more privacy filling a prescription at your local pharmacy than trying to hold a private conversation about your child’s future in such a setting. It was no surprise so few parents bothered to show up. What is really being accomplished with this arrangement?

A Lofty Goal
Fast forward to today and you will find a completely different system in place at our school. Our demographics haven’t changed, but the academic achievement results have improved significantly. The current picture: 91 percent student graduation rate, 80 percent meet the state’s reading comprehension standard, 74 percent do so in writing and 40 percent meet the math standard. Notably, we have 100 percent participation of parents at our parent/ student/adviser conferences.

Our academic scores are based on our junior class taking the Washington Assessment of Student Learning for the second time. Our goal is for 100 percent of our students to meet state academic standards and graduate on time.

How did we personalize our school? The answer: one student at a time.

We developed a system where each certificated staff member is responsible for 20 students. Each teacher, counselor and administrator takes care of a group of students for 30 minutes a day, four days a week. They keep the same students for four years until they graduate.

Our mentorship program helps individualize schooling for each student. We hold parent/ teacher/student conferences at the end of the school year’s first and third quarters. During these student-led conferences we develop a personalized plan for each student based on the student’s current skill level in reading and math.

Systemwide Effects
People often ask me how our high school can get 100 percent of parents to attend the conferences. The answer: one parent at time. Certificated staff members (including myself) are responsible to meet with only 20 sets of parents (not 150).

During the daily advisory/mentorship program, we focus on academic achievement. I charge my staff with taking care of their 20 students as if they were their own children. I expect them to monitor grades and attend-ance and to discuss career goals and strategies for attaining them.

One final point: Our high school’s rise in achievement and perfect parent attendance record has affected the whole school district in these ways:
• We’ve demonstrated to the rest of the district that all students are capable of learning.

• Students now attend conferences with their parents at lower grade levels because that has become the norm for the district.

Richard Esparza is principal of Granger High School, 315 Mentzer Ave., Granger, WA 98932. E-mail: esparzar@gsd.wednet.edu