Elizabeth Kenney, a teacher and administrator at New Mission High School in Hyde Park, stays late twice a week for homework academy, a program focused on giving extra help to students after school. This is typical at New Mission High, where every teacher stays an extra 90 minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays to provide extra help.
This is just one strategy that led the school to boost its graduation rate from 57.6 percent to 90.8 percent over seven years, the largest such increase in the city. According to data from the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, BPS recorded its highest graduation rate ever in 2012. New Mission High School was among the top scoring schools-- one of only six Boston high schools to achieve a graduation rate of over 90 percent.
Teachers and administrators at New Mission credit a freshman orientation program, Saturday school and alternative scheduling options as driving forces. At orientation, incoming students discuss college options and requirements, even before they start high school. The extra support provides a boost to students throughout their four years.
“We have a ‘no kids fall through the cracks’ mentality,” said Naia Wilson, school headmaster. “We wanted to catch them along the way.”
Wilson said homework academy has become a part of the culture of the school. For some students, it is mandatory, but many others attend in order to get a head start on their homework and to take advantage of the extra support.
When Wilson took over New Mission High School in 2007, she said there were a number of problems that students faced, including that she described as a lack of confidence. The school’s small size – about 260 students – made it easier for teachers to connect with students on an individual level, she said.
Although some teachers left after the school began to change, Wilson said the school retained a committed group of staff who adopted the new mission -- one that focuses not just on graduating, but also on attending college.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed that makes our school successful is that we’re small,” Kenney explained. “Every teacher in the school feels responsible for every student.”
That sense of responsibility is returned by students, who are invested in succeeding beyond high school.
“Students will say that we’re teaching them skills that even reach beyond college, so that they’re successful in their careers,” said Nachelle Gordon, an English teacher. “We really lay the foundation for life success.”
She said the school works to connect classroom learning to real-world situations.
“We connect everything we do to a real-life scenario, so they can understand the importance of it,” Gordon said. For example, math lessons are presented as skills students will need to live on their own and pay bills.
Gordon said freshman orientation is important for several reasons, in part because it helps to build a sense of community and ensure that students have basic math and literacy skills. Students are told from the start that they are expected to attend and graduate from college.
Once enrolled, struggling students receive extra support from Saturday school, which is required for students who fall below a C-minus. Students are given a chance to catch up before they fail a class, in hopes that they can stay on track for graduating.
Another unique strategy is alternative scheduling – or “creative scheduling,” as Wilson calls it. Wilson explained that students in certain personal predicaments are able to attend classes at local colleges, usually at night. The college classes satisfy graduation requirements and also serve to prepare students for the college level, Wilson said.
Among the staff, Wilson has stressed the importance of leadership. She encouraged both Kenney and Gordon to attend Boston’s Principal Residency Network, a program designed to train teachers to become principals.
“I’ve always had a leadership role at the school,” Kenney said, “and that’s always been our school philosophy, to turn teachers into leaders.”
With teachers inspired to lead, they can better motivate students to pursue higher education.
“Students that enter our school know they are going to be successful,” Kenney said.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.