08/31/10 — Coach's new objective: more diplomas at SWHS

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Coach's new objective: more diplomas at SWHS

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 31, 2010 1:46 PM

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Michael K. Dakota

Raymond Clark, left, hired as graduation coach at Southern Wayne High School, tours the school with Sudie Davis, center, executive director of Communities in Schools, and Dr. John Boldt, principal. Devised through Communities in Schools to raise graduation rates and increase test scores, a similar program was introduced last year at Goldsboro High School.

When the idea for a graduation coach in Wayne County Public Schools was first introduced last year, Raymond Cochise Clark felt he would be a good candidate.

Growing up in a single-parent home where education wasn't encouraged, he understood some of the challenges faced by today's high school students.

But the job working with Goldsboro High School seniors went to Barbara Wilkins, a retired administrator from the school system.

Clark says now that when he later met Mrs. Wilkins, he understood why she was the one hired.

At the time, though, he admits that the news came as a devastating blow.

Little did he know that he had made such a significant impression during his interview, that he was second choice for the position, said Sudie Davis, director of Communities in Schools, who wrote the grant proposal for the job.

Based on a successful model used in Georgia to raise graduation rates and increase test scores among fledgling schools, it gained local approval when the City Council pledged $29,000 for the pilot program. Soon after, the county commission matched that amount.

By year's end, all 28 of the "at-risk" seniors the program targeted had graduated and the Goldsboro High graduation rate rose 9 points, from nearly 44 percent to 53.7 percent.

This summer, the Board of Education approved the hiring of a second graduation coach, this time at Southern Wayne High School.

The commission has committed $29,000 of the funding, and Mrs. Davis is confident that the remainder of the money will come in through grants and other means.

When the advertisement for the position hit the papers, 34 applications came in, including one from Clark.

But he almost missed the opportunity because he was busy working -- in construction jobs and a position at the Department of Correction.

"When I saw the ad again, it was the day of the deadline, and there was no way I could get everything in if I mailed it," he said.

Still, he compiled his paperwork and raced to the Communities in Schools office after hours and "jammed it under the door" in hopes he would again be considered for the role.

"When Mrs. Davis called me, I was ecstatic, just the fact that they got it and I was coming for the interview," he said.

Mrs. Davis said she was pleasantly surprised that he was still available, and had returned a year later still wanting the job.

The first impression he had made still intact, Mrs. Davis said he was a standout among the diverse group of applicants.

"He has a great sense of humor, and I think that's very valuable when you're working with teens," she said. "He knows what it is to do manual labor and later in life recognized the need to continue his education."

Clark decided to pursue college because of his son, who is now 26. He said he realized he was encouraging his eldest to pursue an education he himself had not obtained.

"We both started out as freshmen together, he at N.C. State University and me at Wayne Community College," he said.

Clark finished in May 2009 with a bachelor's degree in middle grades education from East Carolina University.

He and his wife, Dawn Clark, a third-grade teacher at Eastern Wayne Elementary, also have three younger children, ages 8, 10 and 15.

What drew him to the position -- in addition to working with young people -- went beyond a way to pay the bills.

"There's a difference between a job where you have got a paycheck and a job where you can make a difference and accomplish something," he said. "This is a job that needs filling and a job that needs doing. So I could get up every day, even if I'm not feeling well, and know that I have accomplished something."

The role of graduation coach, in stark contrast to teaching a certain amount of information, called for unique skills that he felt he just might have.

"I grew up in a single-parent home, I didn't have very much of a dad but I had a wonderful mom," he said.

At the same time, he notes, she didn't have a high school diploma. And these days, a high school education is just a "stepping stone" students need to advance to the next level.

"Our main focus, the way I see it, is to get these kids through high school," he said. "Secondarily, show them, keep on going to college.

"I told them in the interview, I have a Bachelor of Science degree, but long before I had a Ph.D. in the school of hard knocks. I like to think that the old adage, 'been there, done that,' a lot of these kids, I was them 30 years ago and nobody was there to step up for me. I have wondered more than once where I would be if someone had."

Clark's first official day at Southern Wayne will be Sept. 9, Mrs. Davis said.

The program's direction will also be slightly different this year, she said, explaining that at both schools, the graduation coaches will be working with a class of freshmen for one period each day, guiding them through the WorkKeys program. WorkKeys measures skills needed in the workplace. During the semester, students will be equipped to take the WorkKeys test.

While the remainder of the day will be spent working with other grades, Mrs. Davis said the advantage of building a foundation in the freshmen will pay off later.

"We found last year that so many of these kids were self-referred," she said. "We worked with over 100 but only 26 were referred.

"Those kids came to us through self-referral, walking through the door and saying, 'I need help' or sometimes the parents asked, 'Would you work with my child?' Sometimes a kid would come in with a friend that Barbara was already working with, plus the word got out that the graduation coach would be working with the graduation projects."

Clark, too, is a firm believer that the best advertising has always been word of mouth. He says he is poised to work with whatever students have been identified as needing help, but is also interested in being there for the lesser known ones.

His ultimate goal -- beyond test scores, attendance numbers and graduation rates -- is to build trust and demonstrate to the students that he is there to help them realize their potential and know their future holds promise, he said.

That, probably more than anything else, is the reason he didn't give up on the job he missed out on a year ago.

Proving out the adage, 'When you're No. 2, you try harder,' Clark's perseverance just may prove beneficial as he parlays that into his new role as graduation coach.

He, however, credits his hiring to a much more basic reason.

"If I had to narrow it down, I'd say, I don't have to fake it, I don't have to pretend to care about the students," he said.