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Graduation rates depend on perseverance

Date: 3/1/2013

By Carley Dangona

WESTFIELD — On a bulletin board in his office, the Westfield High School (WHS) principal has three words, "commit," "resilient" and "reinforce." Those words define the school's approach to ensuring students graduate.

According to statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the WHS graduation rate for 2012 was at 87.1 percent. This rate exceeds the overall graduation rate of 84.7 percent for the entire Commonwealth.

"I don't get hung up on the rates," WHS Principal Raymond Broderick said. "[Of course] I would love to have a 100 percent graduation rate." In respect to the national averages, he said, "We really have to take an introspective look at Westfield, getting to know each one of these learners."

WHS requires 22 [passing] credits for a student to graduate. For those students struggling to complete this requirement, the school offers many options for success, especially because it has the same expectations for each student and does not offer shortcuts, according to Broderick.

"It doesn't do them good to give them a free ride," he stated. "I tell seniors that the only difference between their diploma and the one next to it is the name — everyone had to accomplish the same goals to earn it."

Some of the options available to students are a credit recovery program offered in Agawam via night school, summer school and dual enrollment in colleges where students complete individual studies to accumulate credits.

"Intervention is key. We try every alternate pathway. We explore every opportunity to help students graduate," Broderick said. "Every adult in this building is trying to support the kids. It's the school's responsibility to add the value to education."

He explained that WHS examines the habits of students who excel, those that struggle to define what tactics, and techniques are the best way to get students to graduation.

Broderick added that for WHS students, the option of attending school online has not resulted in much success. He explained that while the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is important, but that the WHS students score high enough that the tests don't impede the graduation of many students.

One tactic the school uses is to focus on the transition points for students, such as those in eighth grade that will enter WHS in the fall. Before completing middle school, WHS invites the students for a presentation that outline what high school life is like.

"We identify at-risk eighth-graders by their MCAS scores and then offer a summer program where the students earn [high school] credit in math, science, history and English. We've found that the students that participate in the program have done better [than without intervention]," Broderick stated.

He continued, "There's a variety of issues [that contribute] to students' struggle," adding that attendance is key and that high rates of absences and tardiness greatly affect a student's success.

Broderick said that due to the proactive intervention of the school Guidance Department, it is never a surprise when a student faces the possibility of not graduating within four years. He added that the school stays in "constant communication" with parents to surprises.

"If a student comes to school regularly and completes homework and projects — being here, being engaged, he or she will succeed. It takes effort and commitment," Broderick noted.

For seniors who are "borderline" at the end of the year, they have the option of spending "senior week" in class immersed in the lessons to meet graduation criteria. If more work is needed, seniors have the option to work into the summer and fall, graduating either in August or in December.

An abbreviated day is offered to qualifying "fifth year" seniors. For the students who take the additional time, they are given the choice to walk at graduation and participate in the senior activities with their class, or defer the privileges a year.

Broderick cited that 87 percent of the 2011 graduation class went on to either a two- or four-year college. "There's an opportunity for every student that comes through the door that wants it," he said.

When asked if the school is able to reach all students through intervention to prevent dropout, Broderick said, "We try."

Broderick told Reminder Publications that it's "exciting" for him to see students graduate and rewarding when those who struggled "realize their efforts."