Dylan Arnold and James Austin talk before the graduation ceremony at Taylor County High School. Arnold plans to attend the University of Louisville and Austin plans to enter the workforce. Photo by Amy Wallot, May 22, 2013

Dylan Arnold and James Austin talk before the graduation ceremony at Taylor County High School. Arnold plans to attend the University of Louisville and Austin plans to enter the workforce.
Photo by Amy Wallot, May 22, 2013

By Matthew Tungate

A full graduating class has gone through Taylor County High Schools since the last time a student dropped out. Still, the Taylor County Board of Education raised the drop out age from 16 to 18 in February – months before the General Assembly laid the groundwork for the entire state to do so.

Several teachers and administrators in the district said they are proud it is one of the first, if not the very first, county in the state to require students to stay in school until they turn 18.

“It shows that Taylor County is on the cutting edge and is ahead of what national and state laws are progressing toward. Someone has to be out in front, willing to try new things and lead the nation in new areas, and we are trying to help improve education and do what is ultimately best for the students, even if they may not see or understand it at the time,” said Casey Young, who teaches social studies classes at Taylor County High.

Agriculture teacher Ryan Williams said he thinks raising the drop-out age earlier than required sends a message to students, parents and the community.

“Our district has always placed a high importance of a high school diploma and the implications this diploma has on providing a better life for the student and their future career,” he said. “With this statement we are reassuring our community of our continued commitment to best educate our community’s children and to continue and not let them drop out of school.”

Senate Bill 97, called the Graduation Bill, gives districts the option of raising their compulsory age of attendance to 18. Just two weeks after Senate Bill 97 became law, 55 percent of districts – 96 – approved a policy raising the compulsory school age to 18 starting in 2015. That triggered a provision in the bill that requires statewide adoption no later than the 2017-18 school year. Early adoption of the policy allows districts to inform students beginning with the Class of 2019 of the change and give school and district staff time to plan for its successful implementation. Since the law did not take effect until June 25, the Kentucky Department of Education recommended that districts re-ratify that decision on or after that date if they adopted the policy earlier. The Taylor County school board re-ratified its policy just after midnight June 25.

Taylor County decided not to wait because, as Superintendent Roger Cook said in an interview after his board passed the policy, “I do not allow students to drop out or fail. I will find something that will fit their learning style – something they can be successful at.”

District Instructional Supervisor Troy Benningfield said the district works hard  to connect academic content to real-world skills and opportunities, to find out what students are passionate about and to “help them connect school work to a skill set that gives meaning to their goals and dreams.”

“When teaching and learning are meaningful, I firmly believe the rest takes care of itself,” he said. “I am especially proud of our expanded work-study opportunities, school-based enterprises, and early college program, which offers students the chance to complete postsecondary work at a reduced cost through a partnership with Campbellsville University. In fact, last year’s graduating class left our district with a combined 818 college credit hours.”

Williams said the school works to engage students in their interests through a career-exploration class.

“To help our students find career-ready fields that help students best prepare for their respective future career area, we have implemented a career rotation class that allows every freshman to experience all vocational and career-ready programs offered in our school. We have found that this has improved our student’s knowledge of courses to take and areas to be involved in to best reflect future career choices,” he said. “These implementations have continued to improve our student performance academically and helped us place every student in classes that best represent their interests. This has promoted a more proactive environment and curriculum that challenge students to want to be in their classes.”

Joanna Williams, a family and consumer science teacher, said teachers work hard to make learning engaging, challenging and fun.

“Through out of-the-box teaching techniques, technology and high expectations, we have minimal problems with disruptive students,” she said. “In the event that a student is not succeeding, administrators work to find a placement where that student can be successful and not detract from others’ learning.”

Principal Charles Higdon Jr. said schools have to be innovative and move out of their comfort zones to empower and motivate at-risk students who have historically been allowed to drop out. Taylor County educators attempt to develop for each student an education plan that is aligned with his or her career or interest goals, he said.

“The individual student is in control of their plan, and the amount of distractions is greatly decreased as a result,” Higdon said.

Also, all Taylor County schools operate within a performance-based educational framework, meaning students complete course and graduation requirements at a rate that supports their individual ability and academic learning levels, he said.

“We do not operate under a ‘one-education-fits-all’ approach to learning,” Higdon said.

If a student is disruptive or uninterested, educators must work harder to make opportunities valuable, Benningfield said. That may mean a class change, switching to a different teacher or even a different delivery method, he said.

“We are moving toward a 24/7, anytime, anywhere model with online opportunities that work to enhance the classroom experience and provide flexibility for students with non-traditional lives. We also have an acceleration program that places students in classes based on their academic ability rather than chronological age,” Benningfield said.

Higdon said Taylor County High offers a virtual school that allows students to complete courses online instead of in the traditional classroom setting. Courses range from online college courses to credit recovery offerings.

“The virtual academy is a resource that provides flexibility with scheduling and courses that is often needed in order to meet the individual student’s learning plan,” he said.

Ryan Williams said teachers must be willing to adapt and change their teaching methods to keep students in school who may be considering dropping out.

“Not all students learn the same, and all students relate to content in different ways. Be able to realize the relationship the student has with understanding the content and mold your lessons to challenge their learning style,” he said. “I am a firm believer that a student doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you show them how much you care about how this can relate to them and their life, my experience has been they will learn that content.”

Young said teachers work with students who are struggling in certain classes to get them caught up on late or missing assignments, and stay after school to give students additional help. Those are just two of the many ways that teachers in the school help students persevere to get their diploma.

“Students may feel that they know what is best for their lives, but ultimately they will look back and respect your decision to help them stay in school and get their high school diploma,” he said. “Teachers and administrators need to not be afraid to think outside the box when helping students stay in school and get their diploma. Education is becoming more advanced and there are several new ways that students can gain credit without staying in a traditional classroom in which it is difficult for them to function and survive. Some students are not cut out for a traditional setting, and technology is allowing educators to be innovative in their attempts to reach those students who are on the verge of dropping out. You just need to take time to find what works best in your school and with your students. If it seems too far out or too ridiculous, it may work for those students who seem too far gone and ready to give up.”

Charles Higdon Jr., charles.higdon@taylor.kyschools.us, (270) 465-4431