Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

How a Tulsa 'failure factory' turned around its graduation rate in three years

School partnerships at a high school in Oklahoma combine relationship-building with data analysis to boost the graduation rate from 53 percent to 75 percent in three years. Part 3 of 3.


Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report
Bibiana Perez, a junior, takes classes in the agriculture program at Daniel Webster High School in Tulsa, Okla.

The first thing you notice during morning arrival outside Daniel Webster High School is the cluster of red-jacketed young adults, each holding up a sign identifying their favorite hobby. They’re members of City Year, a nonprofit partner of AmeriCorps that places college-age members in high-poverty urban schools to serve as tutors and mentors. 

Many of the Webster upperclassmen simply walk by, but several younger students stop and chat about a shared love of video games or binge-watching YouTube clips.

“There are statistics showing that high-poverty students typically have three negative interactions before they get to school,” explains City Year team leader Keanna Marshall, a college graduate who grew up in Tulsa. “So our daily greeting provides a positive interaction before they get into their classroom.”

Webster High School, just a few miles from downtown Tulsa across the Arkansas River, serves the city's west-side community in which only 15 percent of adults have a bachelor's degree or higher and 10 percent of residents are unemployed. Nine out of ten students at Webster qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a national measure of poverty.

Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report
City Year members greet students during their arrival at Daniel Webster High School, in Tulsa, Okla.

As in many schools where poverty and homelessness are daily realities, test scores at Webster have lagged behind statewide averages. But an even bigger struggle has been keeping students in school. By 2013, Webster managed to graduate just 53 percent of its students.

“The need to focus on graduation rates was pretty obvious,” says Tulsa school superintendent Deborah Gist. With school budgets limited by a conservative-led state legislature that critics say chronically underfunds public education, the district turned to Diplomas Now, an education nonprofit whose aim is to increase graduation rates using a data-driven system of early intervention. The results have been impressive. According to information provided by district officials, in spring 2016 (the most recent year available), Webster graduated 75 percent of its seniors, a 22-point increase in three years.

A change in culture 

Under the umbrella of Diplomas Now, three separate organizations operate on Webster’s campus. City Year, with its team of 10 corps members, is the most visible. Communities In Schools, a Virginia-based nonprofit, directs students and families in need to community resources. Talent Development Secondary, a nonprofit that grew out of a Johns Hopkins University study on dropout rates, is the data-driven arm; it identifies kids at risk of dropping out and establishes a school-wide process of intervention and support services to keep them on track to graduate.

The change in the school culture is palpable. “Before, the goal was just to finish high school,” says Abi Gruse, a 17-year-old senior who was born and raised in Tulsa’s west-side neighborhood. “But these last few years it’s really been a big turnaround in the school … they really are pushing us toward higher education.”

When kids perform poorly in the classroom, it’s the schools that are held accountable. But those who work with low-income students say that academic struggles are often the least of a child’s problems.

“We have students that don’t have the basic needs at home, from laundry detergent to food,” says Corey Rowland, the Communities In Schools site coordinator. “A kid might come to me and say, ‘Our lights got cut off this week.’ Or, ‘My dad was beating on my mom all night.’ My job is to find out why a kid isn’t coming to school, why they’re sleeping in class, why they aren’t in uniform. It’s not just a student being defiant.”

Relationships are a priority

Getting students to share this type of information is the first challenge. At Webster the emphasis among each of the partner organizations is to establish individual relationships with students. City Year’s members, all between the ages of 17 and 24, serve as “near-peers” and provide one-on-one tutoring, host after-school programs, and sit in on every ninth- and 10th-grade math and English class, in an attempt to create the open lines of communication.

“If a kid is having a crisis at home that day,” says math teacher Julie Skrzypczak, “maybe they confide in the City Year member whereas [otherwise] they just come into my room angry.” Sometimes, she says, all it takes is for the City Year member assigned to her class to go take a walk with the student for a few minutes of conversation, and the student returns ready to learn.

Mr. Rowland can provide access to community and city resources to address problems such as homelessness, abuse, and mental health needs, but he says he can’t do anything without first gaining the trust of students who may be too ashamed to ask for help. “Kids have to know that you care before they care about what you know,” he says. Even in stable households, Rowland added, many of Webster’s students will be the first in their families to graduate high school, making college visits and filling out financial aid forms daunting new tasks.

Amadou Diallo/The Hechinger Report
Daniel Webster High School serves 470 students in Tulsa, Oklahoma's west-side neighborhood.

The bedrock of the partnership between the school administration and the nonprofit groups is an early-warning system born out of the work of Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and co-director of Talent Development Secondary. The system uses attendance, behavior, and course-grade data to identify ninth- and 10th-grade students who are at risk of dropping out and provide them support services.

“These are kids,” says Professor Balfanz, “whose out-of-school challenges are so great that if you don’t solve them it doesn’t matter how good the school is, they’re not going to stay.”

Weekly meetings to assess student needs

Every Monday, Webster principal Shelly Holman and her staff hold meetings with representatives from the representatives from three organizations. Together they review a list of students for whom the data indicates a dropout risk. Collectively, the team puts into place a plan to reach out to these students, find out what non-school challenges they’re facing, and make referrals to get the students and their families the resources they need.

Sharing data with outside organizations, let alone adopting feedback from adults who aren’t district employees, isn’t business as usual for school officials. The partnership requires a leap of faith from both the administration and the faculty. But Ms. Holman notes the practical upside to bringing in outside partners.

“Diplomas Now has given us the boots on the ground to work with these kids individually. We can take the load off of our teachers, who are under the pressure of meeting the academic standards, so that we aren’t a failure factory,” the principal says.

Bibiana Perez, a 16-year-old junior, credits her relationship with a City Year member for keeping her in school. “He was that person you could go to if you were having a bad day,” she says. “I was terrible in math. I had thought about giving up and just not coming to school anymore. At least once a week he would pull me out of math class and go over anything I didn’t understand. I would not have passed Geometry or Algebra II without him.”

Webster’s success, however, isn’t about outside groups swooping in and magically solving a long-standing problem. Shortly after she became principal in 2013, Holman instituted additional learning time by scheduling classes in 85-minute blocks, double the time allotted in other Tulsa schools. Cutting down on the time students spend moving between classes gained an additional 20 minutes of instruction time per day, school officials estimate.

Going door to door to find students

Holman and her staff have been dogged in their efforts not only to keep students in school, but lure back the ones who got away. For the second year in a row, Holman and a team of teachers and administrators went door-to-door in early September, tracking down kids who appeared on their enrollment list but hadn’t shown up. It’s not an easy task. Noting the community’s more transient population, assistant principal Ryan Buell said they rarely locate a student on the first attempt, and when their van pulls up at an address, with several officials piling out, they’re sometimes mistaken for law enforcement.

Last year, tracking down one missing student led them to an uncle and then a grandfather before finally getting a current address. “She was living with her boyfriend,” Buell said, “and working 30 hours a week supporting herself as a waitress.” She had missed so much time that she was almost a year behind her classmates. She said ‘Mr. Buell I can’t graduate.’ ” Taking advantage of the 85-minute class periods, Buell created a schedule that got her the credits she needed to graduate in just two semesters. “She graduated that May with her 2017 class. Now she’s taking classes at Tulsa Community College.”

While success stories are heartening, Holman points to an attendance rate that is still not as high as she would like. “A lot of times we know where the kids are. They’re working or at home baby-sitting. We need to rethink our hours of the day in order to serve them.” Holman also notes that it’s not uncommon for the school to enroll students who’ve just been released from juvenile detention, yet “we don’t have the resources or the right processes in place a kid like that may need.”

That, education advocates say, speaks to unrealistic expectations placed on underfunded institutions. “The traditional American high school,” says Balfanz, “is based on the premise that 15 percent of kids need extra help, 15 percent need remediation and 70 percent will do fine if you give them a good teacher. In high-needs schools, it’s like 95 percent need the additional support. We concentrate our neediest kids in a subset of schools that weren’t designed for that level of need.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

Part 1: Rural schools unite to make college the rule, rather than the exception

Part 2: How one school is rising above gang activity to find college success 

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