Three Richmond County high schools struggling with low student achievement and high absenteeism are using $1 million School Improvement Grants to usher in positive change. At Glenn Hills, teachers are mentoring at-risk students. T.W. Josey has hired a school counselor and extended instructional time, and Lucy C. Laney has offered training for teachers and invested in technology.
Last year, Glenn Hills High School Principal Wayne Frazier asked students around campus to point out the leaders of the toughest gangs in the neighborhood.
But he wasn't looking to hand out suspensions.
He tracked down four teens to invite them on his houseboat for a day on the river.
On the boat, he told two rivals to sink their hands into one bowl to mash hamburger meat together into patties. Two others started the grill, side by side.
It was a different scenario from the gang violence that was a daily sight at Glenn Hills before Frazier took over as principal in 2009.
"Once they were out on the water, they didn't have one negative comment to each other," Frazier said.
In a school with students growing up in neighborhoods caught in a cycle of poverty, crime and broken homes, Frazier has developed an alternative approach to reaching students and subsequently raising student achievement.
His method pushes aside the obsession with standardized testing and hones in on addressing the social and emotional stress students carry with them to school every day.
With a $1 million federal School Improvement Grant awarded last year, Frazier had the money to pay every employee on campus to spend more hours doing the same type of mentoring for students.
"A lot of people don't understand the stresses on some of these children," Frazier said. "They're dealing with adult issues. If they're hungry, being abused, dealing with neighborhood stuff, if they're not ready to learn, it doesn't work."
The grant allowed for each employee, from teachers to custodians, to earn as much as $2,000 more a year for mentoring students.
Frazier required each employee to mentor two to three at-risk students throughout the year, which meant things such as home visits in the evenings, calling parents for check-ins and taking students to football games.
The efforts are meant to fill an emotional void that has fueled poor test scores and low graduation rates, Frazier said. When the causes of the emotional problems are fixed, the higher test scores will come, he said.
"We don't just say, 'Get to school, you're absent.' We find out why they're absent," he said.
The grant also helped purchase $170,000 in new technology, such as mobile computer labs and Promethean Activboards; provide more professional learning for teachers; and purchase materials for a rigorous curriculum to improve math skills and literacy.
Setting the stage
The outreach has drastically decreased fighting in the hallways -- Frazier counted two gang-related fights last year, down from dozens before 2009 -- and having teachers patrol hallways has convinced students to be in class before the bell rings.
Two other Richmond County high schools receiving the grant, T.W. Josey and Lucy C. Laney, are also putting a focus on social and emotional support, but their approaches aren't as invasive as Frazier's.
At the beginning of the school year, Frazier required employees to amend their contracts to pledge their commitment to mentoring. If a teacher had a second job in the evenings or was not willing to put in the work, he or she could not be an employee at Glenn Hills.
"For a teacher to be committed to this type of work, they're basically working out of compassion and being a good human being," Frazier said. "We're dealing with human lives here."
Acting Superintendent James Whitson said the School Improvement Grant gives schools a measure of autonomy to use money in ways they think would best fit their students.
Principals looked at student data, such as test scores, along with social issues to identify which areas needed the most attention, Whitson said.
"Any time that we can really encourage students to see that education is a stepping stone for the student ... and re- engage themselves in the learning process ... that's a good thing," Whitson said. "It doesn't really matter where that message comes from. It doesn't have to come from a counselor; it doesn't have to come from a principal."
Someone to talk to
For Shanequa Williams, who graduated from Glenn Hills in May, some of that support came from her home economics teacher, Melisa Clark.
As Williams' mentor, Clark visited the 19-year-old at home, took her out to eat and talked to her on the phone when things got difficult.
She went from a student who chronically skipped class to a graduate preparing to attend Augusta Technical College in the fall.
"A lot of young kids, if they have a single parent, they have to work all the time and they don't have a lot of people to talk to," Williams said. "When we had these mentors, we had someone to talk to."
Frazier said he envisions his school continuing to produce more such success stories even after the three-year grant runs out.
Because Glenn Hills met the first-year requirements of the grant, it was awarded a second year of funding: $885,296.
The school improved academically by increasing its graduation rate by 3 percentage points, according to preliminary data from Lynn Warr, the school system's executive director of high schools.
Though Glenn Hills did not increase its Georgia High School Graduation Test scores in math or language arts, it did improve by 7 percentage points in social studies, to a 56 percent passage rate, and maintained its 80 percent passage rate in science.
As also required by the grant, administrators held monthly parent nights and kept track of teacher meetings with parents through logs.
The 2010-11 federal Adequate Yearly Progress results have not yet been released, but Glenn Hills met the complicated benchmark in the 2009-10 school year for the first time since 2004.
Frazier said he has an even bigger vision for helping underprivileged students.
To combat low academic achievement, Frazier said he sees his school becoming a community school model, where the students' day spans from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., meals are eaten at school and all homework is done in class.
The angle is to help eliminate negative distractions and keep positivity in young people's lives.
At Glenn Hills, Frazier said that is doable.
"To me, the children, there's nothing wrong with them," he said. "Most of their problems are social and emotional. After we work in those parts, the rest is easy. Because of that, I very seldom talk about AYP, because that is a recipe to fail. What I talk about is every student succeeding at least one year academically, socially and emotionally. If every student succeeds in those, they will make AYP and PPP and SYP and all other acronyms you want."