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A Cellphone and Sneakers: Strategies for Graduation Coaches

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January 17, 2017

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Once schools get the hang of using data to identify the students most at risk of falling through the cracks, what’s the next step? One emerging strategy around the country is to use a graduation coach—a school staff member whose main focus is to help kids get across the graduation finish line—to connect student data with a powerful and personalized intervention.

In filling a niche that counselors and teachers often cannot because they are too busy, graduation coaches form deep relationships with students who are at risk of not completing high school, and they guide them toward making up missing credits, attending class regularly and building academic and life skills.

As part of the Graduation Matters Montana initiative, districts around Montana—from rural towns to midsized cities to American Indian reservations—are using graduation coaches as a central strategy. In our role as the Northwest Comprehensive Center, we have prepared a forthcoming practitioner’s guide that includes research-based graduation coaching strategies from around the country and highlights what Montana’s graduation coaches have learned on the job.

Here are a few key takeaways:

Managing a caseload. A large and growing body of research indicates that effective programs use graduation coaches as case managers who deliver highly personalized supports and services. Using attendance, behavior and academic data, teachers, counselors and administrators identify students who need support. Graduation coaches then monitor students’ progress, address risk factors and intervene at the first sign of trouble with appropriate strategies. They also communicate with parents while serving as a trusted ally for students. In addition, graduation coaches foster connections between students and their schools, families and community, often linking them to opportunities like Job Corps. Through it all, graduation coaches keep a laser-like focus on students’ educational progress.

Relationships are everything. One graduation coach in Montana with a background in youth development stressed that coaches must exchange cellphone numbers with students. “This is not negotiable,” he said. “It’s a time-management issue—coaches must be able to text students and track them down at any point during the day.” Sometimes, students just need a reminder to study for a test or some gentle encouragement to show up for school. Other times, they need a safe, nonjudgmental adult they can trust.

“You can’t do academics all the time. You have to invest some time finding out who they are, hanging out with them, eating lunch with them. So it’s not always talking about what they need to be doing but celebrating the things they are excited about—and the students appreciate it so much.” – A Montana graduation coach

Teaching students organization skills. Students who fall off track often lack basic planning and organization skills, tend to forget deadlines and struggle to break tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. One graduation coach in Montana teaches students how to use an “old-school written planner” and has them set deadlines they can reasonably meet. Graduation coaches often establish close relationships with classroom teachers in a joint effort to support students as they learn to stay on track.

Cultivating a positive space and investing in sneakers. Graduation coaches are often based out of an office or a classroom, working with students one on one or in groups focused on credit recovery, mini-lessons, and/or study skills in a friendly, welcoming environment. Sometimes, though, they are most effective when they are racing through hallways; according to one graduation coach, “Sneakers are a necessity for the job, which requires walking the halls and from classroom to classroom all day long.”

Graduation coaches admit that their jobs aren’t easy but say the rewards are worth it. Every year, they have success stories: students who had been on the brink of dropping out earning their diplomas, or students who couldn’t see a path forward discovering a passion for an unexplored subject or career. Everything that graduation coaches do to help their students succeed is important, but what’s most essential is their relentless belief in the students themselves—and that with the right supports, all students can graduate from high school.