Kamala Combs helps Marissa Hilgerson with English IV work during the Diploma Recovery Academy at Shelby County High School. Hilgerson is the first student in the program to receive her diploma. Photo by Amy Wallot, April 25, 2012

Kamala Combs helps Marissa Hilgerson with English IV work during the Diploma Recovery Academy at Shelby County High School. Hilgerson is the first student in the program to receive her diploma. Photo by Amy Wallot, April 25, 2012

By Susan Riddell

The Kentucky Department of Education’s Unbridled Learning initiative is focused on better preparing students for college and/or career.

Students can’t achieve this preparedness, however, without graduating and receiving that all-important diploma.

School districts are facing the battle against losing students prior to graduation head on. Many, like the Shelby County school district, have added night school to provide an opportunity for students who have already dropped out of school to acquire a high school diploma.

“School districts like Shelby County are creating successful models for allowing students who have dropped out to come back to school for their diplomas,” said Sherri Clusky, program consultant with the Kentucky Department of Education’s Division of Student Success. “Not every district may take the same approach, but the intent is still the same, and it’s an important one. Students who come back to school for a diploma will reap so many rewards and benefit both personally and professionally once they earn it.

“Together we must all examine the obstacles faced by students which may lead them to drop out in order to determine the best means by which we can remove these obstacles entirely,” Clusky added. “Our goal is to do just that.”

The Shelby County initiative is called the Diploma Recovery Project.

The program ran Mondays through Thursdays for three hours each evening from January to May in 2012 and was free to students who dropped out of Shelby County schools.

The Diploma Recovery Project staffs two teachers and one special education teacher in the classroom each evening. A mathematics teacher helps out two nights a week to assist students with algebra and geometry coursework.

Students only work on the remaining non-elective course requirements they need to graduate. Most participating students have less than four requirements to fulfill.

The elective graduation requirements are earned by working at a job during the workday. Students receive work-based learning credit, which counts toward earning their elective credits.

In its first year, the project brought in 18 students, with one graduating last May.

Assistant Superintendent Kerry Fannin, who organized the Diploma Recovery Project, piloted the program thanks in large part to COMPASS Odyssey, a Web-based curriculum that finds the knowledge level of a student in a course and moves him or her toward completion.

Students can access the curriculum not just at night school, but throughout the day from anywhere with Internet access. They are, however, encouraged to attend as many of the night classes as possible, despite the fact that many have at least one child to support.

“Students take an entry exam to find where in the COMPASS Learning course they need to start and will also take an exit exam at (the school) to demonstrate mastery of the content before being awarded credit for a course,” Fannin said.

While it’s easy to grasp the student benefit of the program, teachers are gaining insight into their profession, too.

Kamala Combs is in her 26th year of teaching and was a primary teacher until the 2011-12 school year. She was teaching at Shelby County Middle School last year when she was asked to teach College Career Reading to seniors who had not met their benchmarks.

Helping the diploma recovery students reinforced Combs’ commitment to teaching.

“Working with these students let me know that it is worth the time and effort it takes to teach all day, go home and grab a bite to eat, and rush back to the high school,” Combs said. “The excitement you see in their eyes when they can see they can do it is the rewarding part.

“This has impacted the way I see my students in class,” she added. “I have been able to talk to them about staying in school and finishing. It takes a lot of dedication and commitment, and there is nothing better than seeing them get that diploma.”

Noelle Barnes also works with Diploma Recovery Project students at night following her day job of working with complex needs students and tutoring. She said every teaching experience changes a person, and this is no exception.

“These students have given me a new perspective of diversity,” Barnes said. “I see poverty as a far greater hurdle than most disabilities, and I have been blessed to work with a few minority students who have opened my eyes to the cultural boundaries that impair educational progress. Being able to work one on one with students has been a tremendously rewarding experience as it allows me to see the growth in our students.

“Many of the students were late in developing the type of maturity needed to earn a diploma,” Barnes added. “This program allows them to attempt the process once they’ve had a chance to gain that maturity. It gives them the time, software and teacher support it takes to make their dreams of graduation a reality.”

Fannin said Shelby County school district’s Diploma Recovery Project can be easily replicated in other districts.

“My favorite part of this project is that we have young men and women who now realize the importance of their diplomas and are willing to earn them. Without the program they had no opportunity to do so. The program opened a door that had been closed to them,” Fannin added.

Kerry Fannin, kerry.fannin@shelby.kyschools.us
Dropout Prevention