In June, Smithfield-Selma High School graduated nearly 78 percent of students who began school four years ago as freshmen. That graduation rate reflects a dramatic four-year turnaround that began after 2008, when the rate was in the low 60s.
A big factor in the change, school officials say, is Smithfield-Selma’s freshman academy, which focuses on the social and academic needs of incoming ninth-graders. This year’s seniors were the first to attend the academy four years ago, and Principal Michael Taylor said he’s pleased with the results.
“I think we’ve done some amazing things over the past four years, and that’s a direct result of our freshman academy and our student advocates,” he said.
Four years ago, Taylor hired staff member Chris Kennedy to help launch the academy. In the year before the academy opened, SSS had 148 dropouts, said Kennedy, and half of those were freshmen. For many, the transition from middle school to high school proved too hard, he said.
“If you get kids off track (early in high schools), the chances of them ... dropping out go up dramatically,” Kennedy said. “The whole idea was just to ease that transition and get them off to a good start.”
Taylor said the transition from middle school to high school can be treacherous in part because of the newfound freedom students enjoy when they reach high school. When they’re free to move from one class to another, they might decide not to show up at all, he said.
“Students just weren’t ready for the level of independence they get going from middle school to high school,” Taylor said.
To help ease the transition, the academy physically separates freshmen from upperclassmen. Ninth-graders get their own wing of the building. Taylor said this makes high school less intimidating for 14-year-old freshmen; they don’t have to share the hallways with 18-year-old seniors.
Taylor said this is as necessary as separating kindergarteners from fifth-graders. “If you look at the structure of elementary schools, you’ll see the structure provides a level of comfort,” he said. “We’ve tried to create that same transitional comfort level.”
The academy also has its own academic structure. Students in each class are placed on one of three or four tiers; they reach the next tier based on performance. This allows staff to figure out which students are weakest so they can give them special attention. Students who are held back are assigned a faculty adviser.
“The idea was to get them promoted during their second year so they can get caught up with their class and graduate on time,” Kennedy said.
Combined with other initiatives at SSS, including student advocates and extra learning time at lunch, the academy has produced impressive results, school leaders said. Fewer than 40 students dropped out of school last year, and only 17 were freshmen.
The passing rate for ninth-graders has soared from 72 percent in 2008-09 year – before the academy launched – to about 88 percent. This year’s graduation rate was the highest since 2006, when the state changed its measure to more accurately reflect the number of young people completing high school.
This fall, Kennedy will move on to South Campus Middle School, where he will be principal.
But Kennedy, who helped launched similar freshmen programs in Wake and Davidson counties, believes Smithfield-Selma has laid a foundation the school can continue to build on.
“I think we’ve made a great blueprint, and we just want to continue the success we’ve had so far,” he said.