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How Huffman High School’s Graduation Rate Shot Up 50 Points In 4 Years

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Despite losing a superintendent this year, the Birmingham City School system saw crucial gains in its graduation rate.

That rate improved from 66 percent to 78 percent over the past year. Over the last four years, graduation rates are up a dramatic 23 percentage points.

Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, whose tenure as the system’s chief ends on Dec. 31, 2014, made graduation rates “a priority for the system.”

“It speaks to the core business — teaching and learning, and improving student outcomes,” he said in an e-mail last week. “As a system, we knew the mid-70s was attainable.”

The gains have been most dramatic at Huffman High School, on Birmingham’s east side.

There, Principal John C. Lyons has overseen a 50-percentage point jump in graduation rate since the 2009-2010 school year. In that year, only 205 of the 518 students in the graduating cohort graduated. That’s 40 percent.

“When the superintendent brought me in, he charged me with one big responsibility, and that was raising the graduation rates,” Lyons says. “He told me that he wanted me to find a way to change the atmosphere, the culture around the school and raise the graduation rate.”

Four years later, Huffman reported a 90 percent graduation rate, second in the district only to Ramsay High, a magnet school that has boasted a 100 percent graduation for the last three years.

“We’re very proud of that,” Lyons says. “Now, that wasn’t an easy process.”

The effort involved re-marketing and re-branding, combined with outreach to the stakeholders in the Birmingham system. It required “buy-in from all stakeholders — the community, the business, your business partners, as well as the parents — and everybody on one common goal: That’s helping graduate students.” The faculty and staff put in the hard work of educating students.

And the new school, that definitely helped.

Facilities and programs

One of the tasks Lyons was brought in to handle was the transition from the old Huffman site to the new building, a gorgeous $55 million campus on Springville Road.

“I must say, being in a new building changed attitudes,” Lyons says. “People that say that environment, a new environment or a new building doesn’t play a role in how students learn is inaccurate. It plays a tremendous role. You see things around you that look good, that, overall you don’t have to worry about the heating and the air and these things– students just learn differently.”

LYONS, ON ADDING SPORTS: “WHY NOT HUFFMAN? WHY NOT OFFER ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY TO EARN A SCHOLARSHIP TO GET IN COLLEGE, ANOTHER DOOR? THAT’S AN AVENUE.”

Witherspoon acknowledged Huffman is a “great facility, one of the best in the area,” but says there was more to Huffman’s success than just the brand new school.

“School improvement requires strong leadership and a staff willing to work together for the benefit of the students,” Witherspoon said. “This includes providing supports and removing the barriers for success.”

With the new facilities came new opportunities in academics and athletics. Lyons added bowling, swimming, tennis and swimming programs, sports that perhaps aren’t considered typical of urban schools.

“Why not Huffman?” Lyons says. “Why not offer another opportunity to earn a scholarship to get in college, another door? That’s an avenue.”

“We’ve tried to offer here at Huffman, we offer the traditional track because that’s what’s expected,” Lyons says. “Go to school, do four years, you pass your core subject areas, you graduate. We’ve tried to offer an alternative track, as well. You offer multiple career paths.”

“Everybody won’t take the traditional path,” he says. He didn’t, either.

“I went to P.D. Jackson-Olin High School, I competed everywhere in carpentry, and if you were to ask somebody 20 years ago, they would have told you I was going to be a carpenter,” Lyons said.

But Lyons didn’t become a carpenter. He went to college, and became an educator. (He still loves carpentry.)

The new school offers a design studio and shop, where students can learn architecture and basic carpentry. They build elaborate dog houses as sturdy as normal homes, and sell them for hundreds of dollars. They compete in carpentry competitions, and they win.

“You get plumbing, you get wiring, as well as all phases of construction, and our kids can actually graduate with a credential in architecture and construction,” he says.

The architecture and construction program is an example of a career academy, one of several in Birmingham high schools. Lyons says the Huffman academy is “the best academy out of all Birmingham City Schools academies,” but admits he’s “a little biased.”

It’s just one of several programs Huffman offers its students, though. There’s a health sciences lab, complete with gurneys, a “patient,” and a mock-up of a patient intake system where students learn basic nursing skills. There’s a cosmetology lab lined with salon chairs and hair dryers, where students learn to style hair, and give manicures and pedicures (Lyons admits he’s taken advantage of this service before). A barbering lab is under development. There’s also a culinary arts program, complete with a commercial kitchen.

In the next few years, Lyons wants to develop a program to prepare students for opportunities in the state’s auto industry.

“We’re in the business of improving human capital,” Lyons says. “When they walk out of here, I want them to be able to work. So, if they’ve got a credential in construction, they can go to work.”

“Whether our kids are going to [junior college], four-year — wherever we need to put them to give them, to put them in the best opportunity to succeed, we’re going to do that,” he says.

REBRANDING

Part of Lyons’ and the district’s push involved crafting a new image of Huffman, a rebranding effort that fostered community pride and support, and built off that to benefit the school and the students.

“We wanted to make this east-side area proud of the Huffman Vikings,” Lyons explains. “We put our image and logos everywhere, we put them out in the community, we invited the community to functions, we gave them input, we let our partners come in and tell us what they would like to see us do, which direction they would like to see us go.”

He says that area churches, St. Vincent’s East, car dealerships, and restaurants stepped in to provide sponsorships and internships. The school produced a flier with the district’s priorities listed on it, and asked businesses and organizations in the area to post the document.

“We gave those five priorities to those business leaders, we put them into their hands, physical copies,” Lyons says.

“It was a total collaborative effort in order for us to grow,” Lyons says.

Inside the school, the Huffman name, and especially the Viking, is everywhere. The Viking is on cafeteria tables, posters, and banners. He’s seemingly on every surface you can imagine. And, Lyons says, on literature handed out to businesses.

The Viking himself even received a makeover. As part of the changes, Lyons made the Huffman Viking’s complexion match that of the 1,200-member Huffman student body, which is 97 percent African-American.

Dropout recovery and graduation requirements

Just as the Birmingham school district has focused on boosting graduation rates, the state has too. The Alabama State Department of Education is seeking a 90 percent graduation rate for the state by 2020 — a goal of its Plan 2020 program — and it is well on its way. Graduation rates went up all over the state this year, rising from 80 percent for the 2012-2013 cohort to 86 percent for last year’s cohort.

The state’s graduation rate, too, has been on a steady climb over time, rising 14 percentage points, from 72 percent four years ago.

That increase comes as the state implements the Alabama College and Career Ready Standards and does away with the vestiges of No Child Left Behind.

One NCLB requirement was the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, which students no longer have to pass to graduate. State Superintendent Tommy Bice earlier this month told AL.com that he didn’t think higher graduation rates could be attributed to the exam going away.

“I attribute the increase to a focus on individual students and providing them with support and innovative pathways to graduation while meeting our new and more rigorous academic expectations,” Bice said.

The dismissal of the graduation exam “helps, but it helps every school in the district, every school in the state,” according to Lyons.

“Students still have to go on and make the grade, they still have to make passing scores, and they still have to be promoted or graduated based on those passing scores,” Lyons says.

The Birmingham City Schools dropout recovery program, too, has been helpful at retaining students and allowing them to graduate. If students are in danger of dropping out, the district’s recovery program allows them to continue working towards graduation at their own pace in a non-traditional setting.

“Just because they may not graduate in four years, doesn’t mean they can’t go on to do great things in the future,” Witherspoon says. “Sometimes life issues get in the way. Now these students have a way to recover and do well in life.”

Lyons said the program is “a tremendous asset” to the district as a whole, and regrets that the program wasn’t available when Huffman was graduating 40 percent of its students. “I think we could have recovered a lot of those students,” he says.

“That’ll never happen to us again.”

Lyons also attributes the success at Huffman to the district providing tools and resources, from before-and-after-school tutoring programs, to ACT prep, and Saturday school.

And, of course, to hard work.

“It’s not just hard work on my part,” Lyons says. “It’s a testament to the faculty, staff, and the students of this school. That goes to the lunchroom workers, the custodians, the SGA, the PTA, everybody has worked very hard for the purpose of graduating these students, giving them the very best possible chance to succeed.”

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