Successful Education Reform Depends on Student Buy-In

The Graduate Marietta Student Life Center is an excellent example of how schools can help students thrive, even without extra government support.

It was an idea startling in its simplicity — ask high-school students what they need to be successful in school and provide them what they ask for. After all, who knows better than the students themselves what hardships and challenges they encounter on the way to graduation.

Marietta City Schools, a suburban school district of 8,900 students northwest of Atlanta, Ga., did just that and built a portfolio of services to support students and their families.

In 2013, the MCS school board asked Leigh Colburn, then principal at Marietta High School, what it would take to raise the graduation rate to 100 percent. At the time, it was 67 percent, below the state average. Her tongue-in-cheek answer, “Build me a dormitory,” gets to the heart of what any educator would tell you — students’ lives outside the school building affect how they work inside the classroom. If the goal was more graduates, the school was going to need to mitigate those outside influences.

Colburn began by gathering stories of her students’ time in school. Graduating seniors shared stories of their high-school years in surveys and interviews — favorite memories, greatest achievements, the obstacles they faced, what kept them engaged, who and what gave them hope. She talked to students who were so off-track that graduation was unlikely, and she asked them where things started to go wrong and what the school could have done to help them.

As patterns emerged in the graduation stories and aging-out interviews, Colburn and her team were able to put together a five-page survey of questions for the 2,500 students in grades 9–12. More than 1,600 surveys were returned, and those responses formed the basis for the initial portfolio of services offered by the Graduate Marietta Student Life Center.

The funding model for the center was simple. As a student need was identified, Colburn found a community partner who could fill it. In one instance, counselors asked students in the substance-abuse support group what would help them say no to drugs, and they were surprised when the kids asked for drug-testing kits for their parents to use. Knowing that parents would test them kept them accountable and gave them an excuse when friends offered drugs.

The Marietta police department now keeps the center stocked with drug-testing kits that parents can obtain for no charge. But before school systems across the country run to ask their local police departments for drug-testing kits, keep in mind that this was a solution requested by the students who would be taking the tests, not something adults mandated for them. Students in other schools and communities might have a different solution in mind. This is why the student-input part of the center is so important. When students are given a role in creating solutions, they buy in to making it work.

Funding for equipping and furnishing the center came from local civic groups, corporations, and nonprofits working together to create endowments for the rooms — writing lab, clothes closet with laundry facilities, food pantry, counseling rooms, college and career center, office space for the on-site counselors, and the Good Vibes Café, a popular hangout spot — all of which are housed in one wing of the high school.

A specialist helps families with housing needs, and eight counselors are available to help with addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, anger management, and general mental-health needs. These professionals are paid by their respective external organizations through the use of grants, private insurance, and Medicaid.

There is also an on-site case manager from the Department of Family and Children’s Services and a juvenile-court probation officer. Tutors are on site all day to help students who drop by during lunch or after school, but they also work with students serving their suspensions at the center instead of at home. The school district added only one new job position, director of the center, to its payroll.

In its first three semesters of operation, the Student Life Center has provided students and families with $3.4 million in resources and services. More than 10,000 tutoring sessions were provided to students during that time, and students serving their suspensions at the center recovered more than 600 instructional days. The food pantry distributes more than 8,000 pounds of groceries each month, and an average of 25 students use the clothes closet and laundry facilities each day.

School supplies, SAT/ACT prep classes, career planning, and yoga classes are available. Support groups for teen moms, students struggling with substance abuse, anger management, grief, or incarcerated parents meet at the center. A second set of buses runs on scheduled days so students can take advantage of tutoring and services after school without having to worry about transportation.

Student input helped build the center, and student input continues to shape the center’s mission and available services. The first week of this school year, Rona Roberts, current director of the center, sent surveys to all high-school students. More than 1,500 responded, and those responses shaped the services offered and counselor caseloads for the first part of the year. A second feedback survey in January allowed them to adjust as needed, and graduating seniors will continue to relay their experiences through exit essays in English classes. As student needs change over the years, the center is designed to evolve to meet those needs.

The support services available to students through the center were already available in the community or in the school itself, but they have now been consolidated at the high school in a way that makes them readily accessible to students and their families, regardless of family income. Parental consent is required to use the services, and feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive. Teachers are supportive as well. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February, a teacher tweeted that she wished to be armed not with a gun, but with the funding for a school psychologist and counselors — the same kind of services that the Student Life Center provides.

The Georgia Charter Systems Foundation named Marietta City Schools its 2016 Innovator of the Year for the center’s work, and school systems across Georgia are now doing the foundational work of gathering student input to design similar services of their own. Because the center is only in its third year, it is too early to tell what effect it has had on graduation rates. The rates have been increasing steadily the past seven years —79 percent for the 2016–17 school year — but it is difficult to estimate how much of that increase was due to the work of the center versus better tracking of students as they move to other schools.

The class of 2019 will be the first to have had the center available all four years of high school, and when that class graduates, administrators may be able to better quantify its effect on graduation. Measured in terms of students and families served, however, it has been quite successful, and many students credit the center with giving them the support they needed to finish school.

We are in a moment where student input matters a lot, especially as Marjory Stoneman Douglas students participate in national conversation on gun-control policy and school safety. Agree or disagree with their tactics, rhetoric, or policy positions, it is clear that students are capable of developing opinions and being advocates. They will tell you what they think, raw and unfiltered, and if teachers and administrators take the time to listen to what students are saying, they can find many ideas that will help them improve their schools.

The Graduate Marietta Student Life Center is a textbook example of how local innovation can lead to a new way of thinking. Top-down, data-driven reforms based on test scores have not given us the school improvements we’ve been looking for, but a local solution driven by those who know the individual schools and communities may be our best hope for increasing educational opportunities for all.


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