Shining the Spotlight

Students in classroom

A Delaware high school raises its graduation rate by focusing on a neglected issue

Jeff Menzer with Douglas Archbald

Like high school seniors everywhere, those at Delaware’s William Penn High School in 2005 assumed they would begin the summer as graduates. They imagined travel, jobs, recreation, preparing for college -- and all the freedoms and possibilities accompanying their new status as high school completers. But 55 out of those 440 seniors -- 12 percent -- failed to graduate. That was the year I became principal. With 2,369 students, it was Delaware’s largest high school.

Last June, only 16 seniors failed to graduate -- 3 percent of the senior class. In fact, our graduation rate as a whole has increased steadily and significantly over the last decade and test scores have gone up. This success story is even more remarkable when you consider the size of our high school and its mostly working-class community. How were we able to improve our graduate rates?

Studying the data

During my first year as principal, I had a steep learning curve. Understanding the school’s culture, programs, and policies was daunting. One thing I learned was this senior nongraduation phenomenon was not a one-year anomaly. It happened every June. Most people were unaware of the nongraduation numbers—not surprising in a large high school where people are focused on their own problems and priorities.

While some staff were aware that every June a bunch of seniors didn’t graduate, this situation was not really viewed as a problem. People rationalized that many of the nongraduates would eventually finish up. Those who didn’t, well, the staff believed they could only do so much. In short, because there was limited awareness of the nongraduation counts and only small pockets of concern, the problem drew little attention.

I was in the University of Delaware doctoral program at the time and decided to focus my data-driven problem solving on “nongraduation” rather than dropouts. Dropouts are students who don’t plan to graduate. Nongraduates are students who fully intended to get their diplomas, but do not.

Doing these analyses gave us information that had impact. Some staff members were dismayed to see the numbers and realized that this had been a yearly pattern; some, initially, felt discouraged. No one could deny that this was our system and was happening to our students.

Improvement as a way of thinking and doing

As the new principal, it was my job to galvanize administrators and teachers to tackle this problem. It was tempting to cast around for a program to adopt or to bring in consultants to tell us what to do. However, I favored staff empowerment -- working with my administrative team and faculty to develop our understanding of the problem and to design our own solutions.

We started with five recommendations:

Common vision: We needed a clear and shared conception of the problem, of our organization, and of what we were trying to accomplish. We aspired to be a community of professionals working together to insure that every senior makes it to graduation. This meant committing to whatever new practices and interventions were needed to minimize or remove impediments to a 100 percent graduation rate.

Relationships: We needed to improve the quality of interactions between students and staff so that students believed teachers cared about their success. When instruction is well planned, interesting, and effective, that communicates that the teacher cares, and this builds relationships.

Awareness: We needed better communications among staff and better reporting systems so staff were aware of every student’s academic progress towards graduation and understood graduation requirements and policies. This required improving systems to gather, organize, and report student progress and supporting teachers to use these systems.

Opportunity for success: We needed new and better programs to increase student opportunities for academic success. This meant evaluating our traditional curriculum and master schedule and figuring out ways to develop extra time opportunities and individualized assistance for struggling students.

Responsibility for learning: We needed to strengthen students’ sense of responsibility and accountability for their learning and academic progress. This required helping students see a connection between effort and academic outcomes and designing pathways so they could more clearly see progress toward goals.

New practices and programs resulted from these recommendations. We reorganized into three academies: business, humanities, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). 

Ninth-graders now apply in writing to a chosen specialization—culinary, engineering, medical laboratory, agriculture, and education are five of the 20 available. Instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, students make choices to match their interests. Each academy has well-defined credit and course requirements.

To improve academic outcomes, we focused on reading instruction. Because reading is pivotal to success in every subject, we had to combat the mindset that reading instruction is the exclusive domain of English teachers.

Improving student reading skills required better progress monitoring and targeted instruction for students at different reading levels. We revised the master schedule to create an extra period allowing one-on-one help for students who needed it: one result, more students interacting directly and individually with adults communicating to students that “we have your back.” This yielded fewer failing students, fewer lost credits, and higher course pass rates.

In a recent conversation describing the decline in nongraduates, a stakeholder asked, “What happened to the 3 percent? What do we do for them next year?” We think having “zero” nongraduates is attainable.


Jeffrey Menzer (jeffrey.menzer@colonial.k12.de.us), director of schools in Delaware’s Colonial School District, was principal of William Penn High School from 2005 to 2014. Douglas Archbald (archbald@udel.edu) is an associate professor of Education Leadership and Policy in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Delaware.

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