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Graduation coaches teach confidence

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By PATRICK HALL, The Wilson Post
A high school senior may be short on credit hours to graduate, or suffering a hardship preventing them from getting to school or focusing on schoolwork, but four graduation coaches at each Wilson County high school are making sure students have the confidence and support needed to graduate on time and prepare for a brighter future.

This school year marks the second year the coaches have been full-time and theyre working not only with high school seniors, but underclassmen as well to ensure students who may be at risk of not graduating stay on track.

Our goal is to see the students graduate in four years, said Pat Climer, supervisor of the four coaches.

Mary Ashby, a former English teacher, is now the graduation coach at Lebanon High School; Michelle Prater, also a former English teacher, is the coach at Watertown High School; Debbie Hill, former psychology and sociology teacher, is at Wilson Central High School; and Andy Rottero, former physical science teacher, is the coach at Mt. Juliet High School.

The four coaches applied and interviewed for the position, which began with a part-time program three years ago. However, Wilson County Schools Director Mike Davis felt the program should be moved to full-time.

We were fortunate our director wanted to implement the graduation coach program, Hill said.

The coaches no longer teach classes, but instead work with students who are at risk of not graduating on time for various reasons. Students need 28 credits to graduate and can earn a maximum of eight in a school year.

When a student is struggling with credits or attendance, the graduation coaches will seek them out and give them opportunities to make up classes, get to school on time and ultimately get their high school diploma.

The coaches strive to build a personal relationship with the students and find connections that will want them to come to school each day. At the same time, each coach will utilize every resource available to improve the students academic performance.

We learn their story and we find out what it is that is causing that student to be at risk, Hill said. She added when they identify problems and meet with students, they really shift to problem solvers to help the students meet their needs.

Rottero said if the students are missing school a lot, they will work with them to prevent the student from violating the 10 unexcused absences rule. Rottero was chosen as the part-time graduation coach for MJHS when the program began three years ago. In the move to full-time positions, the ability of the coaches to meet the needs of students has vastly improved.

He explained the coaches could only focus on high school seniors when they were working part-time as coaches and also as classroom teachers. The problem with that, Rottero noted, is students often show signs of risk when they are freshmen or sophomores.

If you can catch kids in their sophomore years that are behind on credits, its much easier to get them caught up, Rottero said.

Climer pointed out that studies have shown performance in grades three, six and nine are good indicators of whether the student is behind in academic development. When students fall behind in credits, it can be difficult to make them up later in high school.

The graduation coaches were designed to alleviate that problem and make it possible for students to receive their full diploma and keep them from dropping out of school.

The coaches said they hope to provide students with the self-confidence that comes with someone believing in their success. In many cases, the four coaches have met students after school hours or visited them at home to keep them coming to school each day.

We often work with students that dont have people that believe in them. We make sure we utilize every resource that we have available, Ashby said.

Those resources are numerous as in recent years, various programs have been implemented to help students make up courses they have yet to pass and receive credit for.

The county system has a Credit Recovery Course, the Graduate on Time program and a web-based Compass and E410 programs that allow students to make up courses and receive credit for them.

Credit Recovery allows students who fail a class with at least a grade of 50 to take a supplemental course and a test that will change their score to a passing grade of 70 if they pass the Recovery course. The students then receive full credit for it on their transcripts.

Also, Compass and E410 allow students to take web-based courses, written by county school teachers, allowing students to essentially take a fifth block after hours and at home to make up courses.

They can work outside of the regular hours and get extra credits, Climer said.
Climer pointed out that all the web-based programs meet state and federal standards and covers the same curriculum that students would cover in a regular classroom setting.

Prater noted that a student at Watertown High last year managed to make up seven credits in his final semester to graduate on time, after being at risk of missing the credit requirements.

I told him the day of graduation rehearsal that he had graduated, Prater said.

The coaches said that getting at risk students involved in extra-curricular activities is a great way to get them to school and keep them caught up on schoolwork. Climer said many students will come to school because they dont want to miss practice or a club meeting.

While the coaches no longer teach classes, they are still actively communicating with parents and the individual students on a daily basis. Climer pointed out in the first month of the school year, the four coaches met with more than 700 students.

Also, the coaches will often encounter various reasons why students are at risk, from not-having a permanent address, to working full-time and more. The coaches hold parent-teacher conferences like every other teacher to make sure the students parents are aware of their childs progress.

It totally varies to me, some parents you can tell are really behind their kids and others its hard to get in touch with them, Rottero said.

Sometimes the parents didnt have the best educational experience and theyll tell us if they had someone like a graduation coach, they would have never dropped out, Ashby said.

The coaches said they will often hear from parents who are grateful their children are succeeding in school or beating the odds and graduating on time. In cases where their parents were unable to graduate, the coaches will even give the parents tips on how to obtain their G.E.D.

When I talk to parents, they are very appreciative of the work we do and their students do, Prater said.

Ashby said many students they see are 18-year-olds who not only live on their own, but are having to work full-time and support themselves. When facing difficult decisions, these students will often consider dropping out of school to focus on work.

The coaches also work with the Adult High School, where students can obtain their full diploma if they have to drop out of their regular high school. The Adult High School requires a minimum of 20 credits to graduate and offers students over 18 a more flexible schedule.

The school allows students to come in at times that are most convenient for them and complete schoolwork. The coaches said most students will come in the morning before going to their jobs and then return late in the afternoon to finish schoolwork.

During intercession, one week where students can get extra coursework in during the two-week breaks, the coaches will monitor the students progress and even call them or visit their homes to make sure they are attending.

Rottero said students who sign up for intercession or recommended for it must attend at least three of the five days to receive credit. During a break, getting students to come to school can be tough, but the coaches are always willing to go the extra mile.

Weve been able to get students to come back to school, if they wont come to you, you have to go to them, Ashby said.

While the coaches help students from their freshman year and heavily in their senior year, the work never ends and they are always passionate about making sure students graduate and go on to be better prepared to meet their goals.

Rottero said last year at graduation, a student handed him a note where she had written him a simple thank you for helping her graduate. Ashby and the others said several students have come back after graduating to thank them personally for not giving up on them.

Thats why we do what we do, Rottero said. Many say if they knew as freshman what they know now, they would have never considered dropping out. We could use (those students) as some of our best resources for others because they lived it.

I always tell my students, this isnt the end, it is only the beginning, Ashby said.

Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at

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