How One High School Is Using the Community to Inspire Students and Increase Graduation Rates

On a chilly day in February, high school students streamed into a sunlit auditorium, laughing and checking their smartphones. The students, all males and mostly minorities, adopted a more serious air as they took their seats in front of a stage of men that included police officers in uniform, men in sharp suits and ties and a World War II veteran proudly wearing his medals. A small rock band played, three students performed a dance and the principal of the high school gave a speech. The senior students then lined up and solemnly walked across the stage, where they received a tie from vice principal Meg Freeman, a handshake from each of the men in attendance and a hug from the school administrators. This is Men's Day, an annual event at Snyder High School in Jersey City created by Freeman and her principal, Yvonne Waller. Two years ago, Freeman was presented with the task of helping to improve graduation rates at the high school. Less than 50 percent of the students at Snyder High School were graduating on time—or at all. Before tackling the problem, Freeman first searched for its root.
I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes someone 'at-risk' of dropping out. While there are a number of environmental factors that could be cited and factual reasons, such as low grades, I looked beyond to the deeper emotional ones.
Freeman realized that perhaps the greatest reason students drop out is because they fail to see what their lives could be like as high school graduates. She believed that students at her high school didn't truly understand the value of a diploma, and so were not motivated to finish school.

What's Life Look Like for a High School Grad?

In order to ensure that more students graduated on time, the administrative team at Snyder decided to inspire the young men and women at their school by showing them firsthand what it could look like to be a successful adult. This was to be accomplished by exposing the students to real examples within their community. From this concept, Men's Day and Women's Day at Snyder High School were born. At the start of this project in the fall of 2014, the school had an 85 percent monthly attendance rate and a 50 percent dropout rate, according to Freeman. A little over 40 percent of students were graduating on time. There were not systems in place for staging interventions for struggling students. But over the last two years, 500 male students at Snyder have attended Men’s Day, meeting with over 40 male community leaders to come to the event to empower at-risk students. Since the inception of Men’s Day, graduation rates at Snyder have steadily risen. The second annual Men's Day event took place on February 12 (Women's Day will take place on March 24th). Teachers, school administrators and community members came together to show the male scholars what their lives could be like after high school and to discuss the importance of good choices. After the main event in the auditorium, male students participated in breakout sessions with representatives from the Jersey City Fire Department, Jersey City Police Department, Jersey City Medical Center, local businesses and the mayor's office. The breakout sessions were a blend of serious lectures and open conversations. With the small groups and intimate environment, students felt comfortable enough to ask questions like, "What if I have to take out student loans for college, and I can't pay them back?" and "What if what I'm truly passionate about might not pay the bills? Should I still pursue it?" The vulnerability and honesty from both the presenters and participants made it an impactful experience for everyone. The day concluded with a pizza party and the signing of a black cap and gown to symbolize the positive choices that the students were committing to make. Since Waller’s arrive at the school last year, graduation rates have risen by nearly 15 percent. Freeman is optimistic that with the support of the community and the connections built, they will continue to rise.
Mary Conroy Almada is the communications manager for America Achieves Educator Network, where she and her team work to link education to economic opportunity and lifelong success. Mary holds a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s in education policy and management from Harvard.

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