As part of the national GRAD Partnership for Student Success, Rural Schools Collaborative is pleased to highlight 20 schools who are implementing student success systems as part of a rural and small school cohort project. This feature comes from Demopolis, AL, and is supported by RSC’s Alabama & The Black Belt Regional Hub partners at The University of West Alabama. Read more about the project here.
Spring in Alabama showcases roads lined with red bud bushes in full bloom, foreshadowing the warm welcome received at the town of Demopolis. Serving over 600 students, Demopolis High School is an exemplar of ensuring students feel connected at school.
Focusing on student success is not new for Demopolis High Schools, but the framework and support of the GRAD Partnership project was timely - with disruptions from the COVID pandemic and changing student needs, the Demopolis team was looking for a data-driven way to support students who may not otherwise graduate.
This led to a first iteration of a new student mentor program, focused on building relationships. Principal Terrina Gantt, the project lead, says, “When I saw this [GRAD Partnership] opportunity, I knew this would be a great program. My idea was to have staff mentors to aid with student attendance, which in turn would help our students stay on track for graduation.” Gantt used the GRAD Partnership framework as a catalyst to launch the mentorship program and deepen their efforts to improve student success as a whole.
The original idea of the program was to connect seniors at risk of not graduating with caring adult mentors - volunteers from the existing school staff. The team quickly realized senior year was simply too late to begin interventions, and pivoted to establish these mentor connections across all grades, starting in the student's freshman year.
While staffing shortages and educator time are a reality for rural and small schools, the Demopolis team has lightened the load by engaging all adults in the building in the mentorship model - coaches, counselors, and teachers alike. This whole-school team of caring adults started by preparing a simple spreadsheet of metrics on attendance, behavior, grades & connectedness for all their high school students. These research-based indicators are fundamental to student success systems, with a direct tie to one-time graduation. The team then identified students in the spreadsheet with moderate or high indicators, and launched the mentor program from that initial list.
Each school adult chose two to three students to be their mentees for the year. While they are only in the first year of this program - the mentor program has been well-received by students, in-part because of how the mentors and mentees were paired.
“It was not originally planned this way” Principal Gantt explained, “but our teachers chose their students they wanted to mentor. Each teacher identified two to three students they believed they could form the strongest connections with to pilot this program.” This organic process turned out to be one of the most impactful part of the program. High School Science Teacher, Caitlyn White shared, “What struck me was when I told my students that ‘I chose you’ - their faces lit up. Since then, my mentees come to see me each day, and often seek me out more frequently to have a check in conversation.”
Mentors check in with students either once per week or once every other week, depending on if the student is in the high or moderate need category. While mentors are hopeful to check in about grades, finding a club or area of interest for students who are not involved in an activity, or behavior or attendance, the fundamental purpose is just for students to have a caring adult in their corner.
During a site visit, a small group of teachers and staff shared that they each have a few mentees that enjoy meeting more than once a week. And, some mentors have students who simply like to sit in their mentor’s room for a quiet moment during their day. The faculty and staff of Demopolis High School have adapted to each student’s needs, making this model all the more impactful.
The school team meets at least quarterly to check in with one another and update and evaluate the spreadsheet - often breaking into small groups of 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grade mentors. In January, the team decided to implement an additional category: monitor. The monitor category allows for students who have shown improvement to meet less frequently, if they so choose, with their mentor. Since adding the new category, Principal Gantt included parameters where a student could not “jump” two categories, meaning the hope is a high need student will move from high to moderate, and eventually from moderate to monitor. With about eight weeks utilizing the new monitor category in place, over 20 students moved from moderate need, to monitor. These students still meet with their mentors as needed or as they’d like, they are just no longer required to check in weekly – often, students have enjoyed the weekly check ins, and continue to do so.
From the first quarter to the second quarter of Demopolis’ student success team meeting, about 22% of the students moved up in indicator status, but 31% of students in the program moved down in severity of indicators. Both of these slices of data are useful - students who increased in status will get increased support, and the percentage of students going down in severity of status are outpacing those going up.
The positive data has been encouraging for the school staff, and beyond the numerical successes, mentors expressed how much they have learned through these powerful conversations with their students. High School English Teacher, Jill Tutt explains, “We are learning more about our mentees behavior through these conversations. We are learning about their family, their mental health and so many other topics some students did not feel comfortable sharing before establishing these relationships.” A 10th grade mentor shared, “One of my mentees is very quiet and does not seek attention, but he sought me out one morning to share it was his birthday. I was so excited he wanted me to know and I was able to celebrate with him.”
While year one has been a success, the team continues to discuss how to refine and improve their approach. Principal Gantt hopes to address how students in 9th - 11th grade will transition to potentially new mentors for the next school year. The school-wide commitment to building these positive relationships with students ensures many more successes to come. CTE Department Head, Courtney Kerby summarizes it perfectly: “I’m here for my students, and I have also benefited from the mentor program - I feel more connected to my students, so I can only hope they feel the same.”
Special thanks to Demopolis High School for being a part of RSC’s GRAD Partnership for Student Success cohort in the Alabama Black Belt region, and Annah Rogers at the University of West Alabama. Learn more about the GRAD Partnership here.
“I’m here for my students, and I have also benefited from the mentor program - I feel more connected to my students, so I can only hope they feel the same.”
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