Small-Town School, A Pacesetter
Georgia Schools Sets Pace Nationally for HSTW

Blog post Gene BottomsSREB Senior Vice President

Tucker receives High Schools That Work award

A small-town high school has become one of Georgia’s highest-performing schools, with graduation rates comparable to those in North Atlanta’s wealthiest suburbs.

Unlike schools in many upscale suburbs, Camden County High School in Kingsland, about 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, draws 45 percent of its 2,500 students from low-income families. The school is among many across the country that have used SREB’s High Schools That Work school improvement framework — newly updated, but first introduced more than 30 years ago.

Camden County boasts an astounding 92 percent overall graduation rate. The demographic breakdown for graduation rates is: economically disadvantaged students, 89 percent; African-American students, 88 percent (far higher than national or state averages); white students, 93 percent; students from multiple backgrounds, 97 percent; Hispanic students, 90 percent; and students with disabilities, 69 percent.

This means that all Camden County students — except for those with disabilities — graduate at roughly the same rate, no matter their family income or background.

But that’s just the beginning. Whatever path students choose at Camden County High, they emerge well-prepared to take the next steps necessary for good jobs in today’s changing, technology-based economy. That’s precisely the idea behind our new High Schools That Work model.

In 2017, Camden County High averaged 97.6 on Georgia’s College- and Career-Ready Performance Index — more than 20 points higher than the state average. This helped the school earn the highest accolade from SREB’s High Schools That Work — The Outstanding High Schools That Work Site Award.

Principal John Tucker says they don’t believe in failure at Camden County High. Students who aren’t passing a class must remain in it until their grades allow them to move on. “We do not have repeater classes; they were not working anyway,” says Tucker, who has been principal for 12 years and worked in the county 25 years.

Instead, his school enrolls students in academic courses — delivered in a rigorous, interesting, and intellectually demanding manner — that prepare them for meaningful careers. As a result, students graduate ready for college, careers or both. The faculty helps students see real purpose in school. So it’s no wonder that students give the school a five-star rating for the learning climate.

Strong Academic Support for Students

When Georgia eliminated its requirement that students pass end-of-course high school exams to graduate (though they still must take the exams), Camden County set a higher standard, requiring students to pass at least one exam each in math, science, social studies and English language arts at the Developmental level to earn a diploma. The exams also count for 30 percent of students’ final grades — higher than the state-required 20 percent.

These ambitious requirements have resulted in 60 percent of students meeting the Proficient or Distinguished levels on the exams in ninth-grade literature, 62 percent in American literature, 63 percent in analytical geometry, 68 percent in biology, 68 percent in U.S. history, and 52 percent in Algebra I — all in the 2016-17 school year.

How do students, often from modest backgrounds, reach these levels of success? They have the help and support they need. “Rigor without support is a waste of time,” Tucker says.

“Rigor without support is a waste of time.”

The school uses its federal Title I funds to employ 15 certified teachers at $25 an hour to tutor students during special periods in the school day. Students qualify if they’re not on track to pass the end-of-course exams. The tutors are retired educators or individuals who want to work in the district. This provides school administrators the opportunity to see how well they work with students.

College Preparatory Class Core

Another strategy also makes a difference: Camden County High School teaches every student a core of college-prep academic courses. Lower-level tracks or easier courses have been eliminated. Some students take AP or dual-enrollment courses, and some are in honors or college-prep courses, but all paths prepare students for postsecondary education of some type.

Our new High Schools That Work goals and Key Practices include these higher expectations and rigorous assignments. We urge schools to offer a college-ready core of courses; link academics to career-themed academies that lead to postsecondary studies and the workplace; and have a strong counseling, advisement and support system for students.

Camden County High reflects this spirit perfectly and has implemented our new framework with intensity and purpose. Faculty own the work, and care for all students.

Many schools can make this level of success happen for students. It’s about rigor, relevance, relationships, support, leadership, continuous improvement, and giving educators and students ownership of their learning.

A Career Path for Every Student

Camden County High engages students in their courses by literally organizing the school around students’ interests. All students take at least three career courses in one of the career pathways. Through this experience, students begin to see relevance and meaning in their education. In 2018, Tucker predicts 70 percent of the school’s seniors will graduate with some postsecondary credit.

The school is split into six career-themed academies: 1) ninth-grade academy with strong career exploration components; 2) engineering and architecture; 3) health/environmental science; 4) government/public service; 5) business; and 6) fine arts. Students can choose from various career pathways (sets of courses) within each academy.

Each career academy has an assistant principal and counselor, and the school closely monitors each academy’s attendance, graduation rates, and percentage of students passing state exams, completing dual-credit courses, and enrolling in postsecondary studies.

Leaders of each academy must ensure continual improvements. The end-of-course exams help ensure each career pathway is rigorous.

Dual Enrollment

The career academies fit well with Georgia’s new statewide emphasis on dual enrollment and allowing more high school students to take college courses. “We have students earning dual enrollment credit at our high school, and they are not leaving our campus,” Tucker says. Both advanced academic students and career-tech students (often the same students) can take these college-level courses at their own high school campus. Many of the school’s teachers have become certified to teach these courses, which ensures course quality while also helping teachers earn higher salaries by completing advanced degrees and training — all financed by the school.

A Collaborative Approach

Leadership is shared among Camden County High School’s educators.  “Focus teams” of teachers from various disciplines are responsible for identifying school challenges and working to find solutions. For example, one team finds ways to improve students’ math achievement. Another helps introduce and strengthen literacy strategies in all classrooms, not just in English class. A data team helps identify and address problems of practice within the school. An attendance team examines data for each career academy and schoolwide.

A counseling and advisement team ensures that every student, starting in 10th grade, has the same teacher-adviser and that each career academy’s counselor has a 20-minute weekly advisement session with students. There’s even a policy team to focus on schoolwide issues, and a team for improving achievement for students with disabilities.

Each team’s chairperson serves on the schoolwide steering committee, comprising at least one teacher from every career academy, that advises the principal. A full-time graduation coach knows every Camden County High School student’s status toward earning a diploma and shares the information with the teams of teachers. Every team has a list of students and the steps required for graduation.

This makes “the teachers feel empowered, and they are,” Tucker says. “If they need anything, we’re going to get it for them. All they’ve got to do is ask. If it will help students succeed, we are going to get it for them.”

“The teachers feel empowered, and they are.”

Tucker says a recent visitor to his school “asked a teacher how would you describe teaching here. He said ‘intense.’ But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ultimately, Camden County High School’s guidelines for success match SREB’s High Schools That Work key strategies:

  • Hold students to very high standards to graduate.
  • Help students see connections between core academics and their career interests.
  • Provide a strong support system — “a loving nag” — who pushes students to pass at least one end-of-course exam in the four academic areas at the Developmental level. Continually strive for students to meet the higher Proficient and Distinguished levels on the exams.
  • Require every student to take a solid academic core — no exceptions.
  • Encourage every student to select a career focus relevant to their future.
  • Enroll students in career academies based on their area of interest, not their ability level. Career pathway classes include AP, Honors, and regular college-prep classes.

Almost any school can make strides like those Camden County High is making. Is your school pursuing these strategies and holding every student to high standards? If not, why not?

Educators and schools interested in adopting SREB’s new High Schools That Work design may contact Dale Winkler, special assistant to the senior vice president for school improvement.