At Wells Community Academy High School, principal Rita Raichoudhuri, EdD Urban Education Leadership student, models her school around a key phrase: the first step to learning is showing up.
Under Raichoudhuri’s leadership, Wells has increased its attendance rate from 80.3 percent to 85.9 percent over the span of one year using an incentive program. She designed a program granting students the privilege of eating lunch off campus for earning a spot on the Dean’s List, a ranking that includes attendance rate as well as GPA.
“We thought this would just motivate students to increase their attendance and increase grades, but we saw there was a really positive unintended consequence,” Raichoudhuri said. “Students didn’t want to go to lunch by themselves, so in addition to all of a sudden increasing attendance and their grades, they began putting pressure on their significant others to go to lunch with them.”
With the program in place, more than half of Wells students have reached a 95 percent attendance rate.
The school continues to target students lagging below a 70 percent rate of attendance. Teachers use targeted interventions to resolve the root causes of truancy while community partner BUILD, a gang-prevention and intervention program, conducts home visits. Wells also introduced a transportation incentive program to provide free transportation to and from school.
Parents might not be expecting a phone call from their child’s school after a high score on a test. That is exactly the approach Wells is taking under Raichoudhuri.
“We don’t just call home if a student goes from a 68 to a 57 and is now failing,” Raichoudhuri said. “When a student increases his or her GPA, or is on time to class for a significant period of time or what used to be a behavior issue isn’t one anymore, we make the call home to start building the relationship with parents.”
Raichoudhuri says the success calls make the problem calls much easier for both teachers and parents when the seeds of a relationship have already been planted.
While not every parent may have direct contact, Wells has implemented an e-communications scheme ensuring every parent has virtual 24-hour access to their child’s education. Each Friday, parent coordinators at Wells send out grade reports for every student to all parents. In addition, Wells has set up a parents portal that allows 24-hour, up-to-the-minute access on students’ academic progress. The school held two training session for parents to use the portal and is now calling individual parents who still need training to work one-on-one to create universal access among parents.
“The more information everyone has, the better conversation we have about their students grades,” Raichoudhuri said. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Wells freshmen “on-track” percentage increased from 78.5 percent to 92.5 percent from the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 school year. On track means students receive a maximum of one failure in core classes each year.Raichoudhuri has worked with Center for Urban Education Leadership coach Cynthia Barron to craft a comprehensive strategy ensuring freshmen remain on pace as they enter the near west side school.
Raichoudhuri meets with freshmen teachers three times per week to examine individual student data, tracking student grades in each class with a particular focus on core classes. The teacher team seeks to take a holistic look at students, examining attendance and social and emotional behavior to determine possible correlations with struggles in the classroom. Raichoudhuri then leads a conversation with teachers sharing strategies successful in one classroom that can be implemented at scale across the school.
With all these tools, freshman teachers at Wells are better equipped to start up a conversation with struggling students or reach out to family members.
A decline in out-of-school suspensions at Wells has correlated with a significant decline in the school’s rate of severe misconducts, declining from 13.6 percent to 4.4 percent year-over-year. “They are here to learn, and if they are not in school, they aren’t learning,” Raichoudhuri said. “There is nothing punitive for them to have an out-of-school suspension for most of our kids; they wake up late and play video games or get into trouble and cause mischief—it’s not good for them or the community.”
Raichoudhuri has built alternative methods to address behavioral issues. Teachers still utilize in-school suspension as a tool to ensure students are still engaged with their coursework. However, the use of restorative justice practices has curtailed the number of incidents with a suspension from 858 to 253 from 2012-13 to 2013-14.
The peer jury process allows offending students an opportunity to reflect on their actions in the presence of their fellow classmates. Trained peer jurors walk the offender through the process of reflection and jointly produce next steps—perhaps an apology letter or time spent volunteering around the school.
Even for repeat offenders, while there may be punitive measures taken, Raichoudhuri hits hard on the process of reflection—why did a student act as they did, determining the cause, and highlighting steps to correct the action in the future.