Goldsboro High students behind on graduation projects
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 15, 2011 1:50 AM
How many of the 126 Goldsboro High School seniors will graduate this year?
With less than four weeks to go before commencement, officials say that a number of students are still scurrying to complete their graduation projects, a prerequisite to obtaining a diploma, before graduation day.
Earlier this month, Wayne County Public Schools assigned a central office staff member to the high school full-time to take charge of overseeing students' completion of the projects. Communities in Schools and the school's graduation coach, Barbara Wilkins, have also scrambled to enlist the help of volunteers to pick up the slack in helping students reach the finish line.
But the burden of responsibility ultimately does not fall on the shoulders of Communities in Schools or the graduation coach.
"The mission of Communities in Schools is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life," said Sudie Davis, executive director of CIS. "(Mrs. Wilkins') role is much more recruiting volunteers, getting people to mentor kids, bringing in community resources, not only in the sense of people, but resources that can be used in addition to people."
Goldsboro High School's struggles have been historic. In 2006, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning threatened to close the school because of lagging test scores and dismal graduation rates.
Officials increased their efforts to introduce programs and bring in additional staff to improve the situation. Then-Gov. Mike Easley even stepped in, naming Goldsboro one of 66 high schools to receive additional resources, training and support from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction as part of his High School Turnaround initiative.
Two years ago, Mrs. Wilkins was hired as graduation coach. County commissioners agreed to fund $29,000 as part of a $58,000 pilot program aimed at improving graduation rates at the school. Funds were matched by the city. "I was assigned 28 students, to make sure that those students graduated," Mrs. Wilkins said. "We did it through WorkKeys and Wayne Community College."
Meanwhile, administrative shifts were also made at the school. John Twitty, a 26-year military veteran who had been principal at Belfast Academy and Wayne High School Academy, was transferred to Goldsboro High to work with then-principal Patricia Burden.
The "shared principal concept," officials said, was in anticipation of federal grant money for the district. Criteria for the School Improvement Grant called for recipients to replace principals who had been at the school for more than two years.
Ms. Burden was later reassigned to Twitty's former post at Wayne High School Academy, leaving him in sole command of GHS in the fall of 2010.
At the outset, he said he was determined to do everything possible to see that graduation rates improved and students received a high school diploma.
"(I said) we're going to do graduation project even if it takes until the last day of school, which it did," he said in 2010. "On the very last day of school, I had three seniors present their projects in my office because it would not be fair (not to follow through)."
The efforts paid off. All 28 of the students Mrs. Wilkins worked with received diplomas in June 2010, and graduation rates rose by nine points that year, from 44.7 percent to 53.7 percent.
In recent weeks, rumors began to swirl that only a small number of seniors at the school have come close to completing the required graduation projects. In some cases, sources said, students had not even completed their letter of intent, which is one of the basic criteria typically done during the freshman year.
Of the 126 seniors at the school, only about 22 percent have completed their projects, said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. She said she was aware of 23 students whose projects were done. Two of those were transfers from Wayne School of Engineering who were on track when they arrived.
Mrs. Davis said she did not have definitive numbers, but had heard there were 40 seniors whose papers were done and almost ready to present, in addition to 28 that had been completed.
"That's 68 out of 126," she said. "It's still only half."
Goldsboro High School English teacher Trelvia Thompson is responsible for keeping record of the graduation projects. Calls to her by the News-Argus to confirm the number of students who have completed the projects were not returned.
However, GHS principal Twitty said the school's seniors will be donning robes and claiming their diplomas on graduation day.
"We're anticipating about 126 seniors and we anticipate all of them graduating," he said on Friday, adding that he could not provide a breakdown of specific numbers.
"Because we tend to do a different process than everybody. We do it periodically. By the end of the month, our goal is for every one to be complete by 31 May."
Exceptional students are handled differently, said Dr. Ralph Smith, director of secondary education.
"Not all of them have to do projects because they're special ed," he explained. "They have done their projects through their class in EC, but I don't know how many total. It changes every day."
Twitty would not provide a number of EC students.
"All of them have completed them," he said. "We don't know right offhand how many."
VOLUNTEERS, STAFF MOBILIZE TO
At this stage of the game, with the clock ticking, many hands are involved in the process.
"Central office has placed a full-time person (Kim Copeland) at GHS who's monitoring progress. We're getting help in there to help these kids," said Mrs. Davis. "We feel sure (mentors) include at least one school board member, several people from central office, school staff has been given assignments. ... There are a lot of people involved at this point."
The community has also been enlisted to work with students -- from pastors and retired educators to volunteers with an array of backgrounds, many residents have stepped up at the 11th hour to assist with the projects.
"We're working really, really diligently to assist these students in every way we can," said Ms. Copeland, lead literacy teacher for the district.
Ms. Copeland, Smith said, has been "incredible."
"She's over there every day, of course, and assigning people, every kid has got a mentor as far as I know," he said. "The teachers are volunteering some of their planning period time every day, some people are staying after school. Of course, people do that all the time. It's just that the focus is that these projects get finished."
Part of Ms. Copeland's efforts include a spreadsheet to check off students as they progress -- who has finished the letter of intent, letter of recommendation, etc.
"There's about 10 steps for each project," Smith said. "They're keeping a spreadsheet on each student as they progress. Kim would know which ones don't have to do it at all, how close anybody is.
"Are we going to cause people to not graduate over this? We're going to do everything humanly possible to get this done, and we don't want anybody to not graduate because he didn't get this project done."
It all boils down to providing every opportunity and access to what students need, Smith said. Every effort is being made to ensure the seniors can achieve their goals, and in time to walk across the stage.
"On the other hand, if it's a case of, 'I'm not going to do it,' they're not going to graduate," he said. "You can't let them get by with that. But it will be because they chose to refuse to do it, not because they don't have the resources.
"We have all been assigned a student. CIS, Sudie Davis and Barbara Wilkins, the graduation coach, they have just been instrumental all through. We're not going to let that happen and we're not going to graduate them without a project. We're going to make it work."
Mrs. Wilkins said she has attempted to find out which students needed help and support, and to fill in where she could, whether working one-on-one or through classroom visits.
"The graduation projects are through the school and it's school-directed," she explained. "I'm really not sure the students, well, they haven't taken it seriously. I think they thought it would go away. It's not worked out that way.
"Mr. Twitty has met with them and told them they must do a senior project to walk across the stage. I think we have their attention. I think they're working very hard now."
MOVING FORWARD AND FIXING
The climate at the school has changed in recent weeks, for the better, she said. Then again, it had to as June 11, graduation day, is fast approaching.
Unfortunately, for some, it could be too late. And for Mrs. Wilkins, that is a frustrating prospect.
"This was not my project," she said. "I told Sudie way back in February when we started looking at those -- you hear graduation project and you think graduation coach. That's the way it goes. I'm here to help in any way I can to help students graduate. ...
"All along, I have been in classrooms, trying to figure out where I could fit in to help students, went to the classrooms, offered my help to students who wanted help."
While the outcome is still unknown, the prognosis remains uncertain. And the most glaring obstacle is time.
"This is a process that should be started your freshman year," Mrs. Wilkins said.
"The biggest problem in my opinion is that half of them should have been done by the end of December or the middle of January," he said. "And they didn't require kids to finish them, and so the ones who aren't even taking English now that had English in the fall, we're having to chase them down and make sure that they follow through.
"But they're good kids and they can do it. It's good for them. I'm a major supporter of keeping the graduation project as a requirement. They don't like it, but once it's done, everybody says, 'I gained a lot from having done this.'"
Worthwhile or not, the fact remains that it is a requirement in Wayne County Public Schools, said Dr. Sandra McCullen, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
"It's in our local policy," she said. "Complete the graduation project ... or they won't walk."
"We cannot graduate a kid that doesn't do the project because the whole system would fall apart," Smith said. "When the children, and it's been about a month ago, when they realized that they couldn't as a group say, 'We're not going to do it' -- because it would be a disaster if nobody graduated -- and they couldn't win that battle, then they started working on their projects."
Smith said he couldn't speak for Twitty in terms of how things will be handled at graduation time, but speculated on several scenarios.
"I'm sure that Mr. Twitty has set some kinds of a deadline and I don't know what it is but as far as how can it be extended, what's the true last-minute? The true last-minute isn't any earlier than the last final exam," Smith said. "Think about it. We graduate people the day after they take their last final exam. The problem is if we have 50 (projects) on the last day."
In the case of an incomplete or failed exam, principals are given leeway to impose a deadline for finishing assignments or retaking an exam.
"You can't walk .... but if you want to graduate, you just need to finish your project," Smith said. "They can go to summer school and make sure to finish and still get their diploma.
"I don't know that that's what (Twitty's) strategy is."
Twitty would only say, "Of course, if there are any stragglers we're going to work with them. We're going to make sure that they get it done. We're going to give them ample time. After taking an exam, we're going to make sure that they walk (at graduation)."
Mrs. McCullen said she is also optimistic that the efforts will bring about a successful outcome.
"I think the students will have it completed at all of the schools and Goldsboro High School," she said. "I'm encouraged that that will happen. We are very encouraged by the progress that we have seen of the students, and I think they will be able to complete it, I really do.
"The students are working hard and need the support of mentors and others. We just want to make sure that we support them in their efforts."
In the meantime, once again, all eyes are on Goldsboro High School.
"Whatever message is sent out this year, others are going to see it," Mrs. Wilkins said. "I think it will have long-lasting effects to the students and the community, whichever way it goes.
"It's a process and it needs to be chunked up in pieces. It cannot be done at one time."
She said this past week that she had spoken with several students, eliciting their input on the graduation project.
"Some said, 'We can read what's online but we can't understand it,' some said it would have been easier if it had been presented in pieces," she said. "Now, a lot of the kids will admit that they have procrastinated.
"If people want to point the finger, everybody can have the finger pointed at them in some way -- parents should have been more involved in it and asked more questions, maybe we as a school should have broken it into more pieces. If it's part of your English requirements to go from one grade to another, you have a certain amount of time, then it wouldn't fall on just one teacher."
She suggested taking a look at the organization of the graduation project and going from there.
Either way, she said, this should serve as a real "teachable moment" for the school.
"We have all learned something -- just how much is involved in the project and ways to make this better for the next group of kids," Mrs. Wilkins said.