Positions part of Innovation Zone plan at HHS, Midland
ONA -- To know the impact graduation coaches are having at Cabell Midland and Huntington high schools, one only has to look at a Christmas card Becky Runion received.
Inside, the student wrote Runion had "given her hope to finish school."
Graduation coaches were part of the county's extensive high school Innovation Zone plan written a few years ago. The plans were approved and money provided to fund the positions for two years from the West Virginia Department of Education. But administrators requested the positions be written into the Cabell County Schools budget because of the results they were seeing.
The positions weren't exactly spelled out, except that they were meant to help students who were at risk of dropping out. For Runion, who is a licensed school counselor, that has meant becoming a big sister and friend.
"You build relationships with kids and be someone they can come to every single day," she said. "They know someone is there for them."
Students are referred to the graduation coaches by attendance officers, teachers and the administration. Runion said she helps students who are taking classes through the credit recovery program and often will assist in gathering information needed to apply for college or for GED services.
Last fall, both she and Steven Freeman at Huntington High, who recently left to take a position in Kanawha County, received Community In Schools site coordinator training from the national office. They were provided with additional resources to help them document services provided and better identify obstacles to a student graduating.
But, Freeman says, that meant developing strategies to fit the student populations they were serving.
"We did two different things ... Huntington High School is much different than Cabell Midland because of a higher at-risk population," Freeman said. "I had to deal with a lot more big project things to affect more kids."
He said he had to connect with community groups and outside providers because he alone couldn't service 500 or more students. But that cooperation, he added, led to a decline in the number of dropouts.
While central office personnel said the graduation coaches are only a piece of the efforts that have been undertaken, they have and continue to play a contributing factor in keeping students in school.
In 2009-2010, the year before graduation coaches were put in place, Cabell County's dropout numbers hit more than 200 for the fifth time in 10 school years. But that has dropped considerably in the years since. In 2010-2011, 128 students dropped out, and last school year the number declined to 95.
Runion and Freeman said some of the biggest accomplishments they've had has been with changing mindsets, which Freeman described as a focus on the upper-level students rather than those who were underperforming.
"(The county) took the initiative to to say a kid who drops out of school affects everyone," he said.
Freeman said it was hard to leave his job as a coach, but another opportunity opened up that he couldn't pass. But he said he feels confident that strides were made. In fact, he said there is evidence that students who were helped are now becoming spokespersons for staying in school.
"I had a kid who said they were just going to drop out," Freeman said. "A girl who I pleaded with who dropped out and then came back, looked at the other girl and said (dropping out) was the worst decision she had made in her life."
Runion also is taking a different position next year as an elementary counselor in Cabell County. She said her three years as a graduation coach have given her insight into the warning signs to look for in elementary students.
Justin Hatfield and Kodi Killin are two Cabell Midland students taking classes through the recovery program. They said Runion has been a great help and an encouragement.
"She has really meant a lot, always there to help me," Killin said. "I struggled a lot, but I got a lot further than I thought I was going to be."