When Edy Morales was called to the office at T.C. Williams High School this spring, he thought he was about to be suspended.
But Principal Suzanne Maxey told him that he was in a different kind of trouble. The senior was three credits and two failed standardized tests shy of graduating. She said she wanted to help.
About 660 T.C. Williams students are expected to cross the stage at the Patriot Center on Saturday to collect their diplomas — a milestone that dozens of them, including Morales, almost didn’t make.
Senior year can be a vulnerable time for students who are distracted by problems at home or demoralized by three-year-old failed tests staining their records. Many end up leaving school because they don’t have the energy or confidence to lean in.
To help them to the finish line, T.C. Williams, Alexandria’s only public high school, deployed a team of mentors to help every student at risk of not graduating.
For the last four months of the school year, they pushed, prodded, inspired, cajoled, threatened and sometimes carried the students through their final lap of high school.
They called the effort Operation Graduation.
As schools across the country mobilize to prevent high school dropouts, many are focusing on early warning systems that predict whether absences or slip-ups in ninth grade, fifth grade or even kindergarten will push students off course. They are introducing programs to ease critical transitions into middle school and high school, and some, like T.C. Williams, are working with students — one by one — to the very end.
For the first time in history, the national graduation rate climbed past 80 percent in 2012, a 10 percentage point jump from a decade earlier. Advocates cite a growing recognition that high schools must prepare everyone to graduate so they have a chance to succeed in today’s society.
Most school districts in the Washington region — Prince George’s County in Maryland is one exception — have charted improvement in graduation rates in recent years. Alexandria and Arlington, with 10- and eight-percentage-point increases, respectively, have led the pack over the past four years, according to federal measures.
In Alexandria, T.C. Williams was pushed into the spotlight in 2010 when the federal government labeled it “a persistently lowest achieving school.”
Officials used corresponding federal dollars to create a more personal environment in one of Virginia’s largest schools. Extra counselors were hired, bringing caseloads down to a 1:170 ratio, compared with about 1:400 nationally. And the administration was restructured so that each grade level has a dean, four counselors, a social worker and an administrative assistant who stay with the class for all four years. A specialized academy was created for students learning English.
Graduation rates improved, especially for minorities. For African Americans, the on-time graduation rate grew from 79 percent to 88 percent between 2010 and 2013, and for Hispanics it grew from 69 percent to 80 percent, according to state calculations.
School officials and students say the personal attention is paying off.
“I think it’s hard to drop out of this school,” said Furious Dyar, a 20-year-old senior who missed two years of school in seventh and eighth grade because of problems at home. “Somebody in here is not going to let you. Somebody is going to be that person who grabs you and does not let you go.”
For Dyar, it was Michael Cohen, an academic principal for math and science he got to know in summer school. During the year, Cohen became like a big brother, he said.
“The only reason I am here now is because of Mr. Cohen,” Dyar said. “He always says, ‘Why are you always in my office?’ But I know if we spent an entire day not in his office, he’d be running all over the school looking for us.”
When Dyar’s name landed on the hot list this spring, Cohen directed him to an online review program that helped him pass his Algebra I Standards of Learning (SOL) test after several previous attempts. And Cohen grilled him when he slacked off in ecology class.
Experts say that when it comes to helping students, relationships trump any policy or intervention.
“At the end of the day, an adult tracking their ups and downs and victories and failures, cheering things on and believing in them, that can be utterly transformative,” said Dan Cardinali, president of Communities In Schools, a dropout-prevention group.
Morales had been on the verge of leaving school since 10th grade, when he fell so far behind that school seemed a waste of time. He was still in high school two years later, but he often wandered the hallways and avoided his classes.
After the principal became his mentor, he said, he felt more focused. “I’m not going to be bragging that Miss Maxey is my mentor,” he said. But, he added, “I got that little extra bonus.”
Maxey invited him to do his work in her office, hoping it would help him concentrate. She gave him a schedule for the review sessions for the SOL tests he needed to pass. Morales signed a contract agreeing to try.
Every Thursday afternoon, the mentors met to report their charges’ victories and failures.
They started with about 200 names on their list. As weeks went by, they happily crossed names off as students improved, and they brainstormed about seemingly intractable cases.
Are there credits we can transfer from their last school in another state or country? Should we bring in the parents or the sister and brother for a meeting? Should we do a home visit?
Students needing an extra shot of motivation were referred for a “Mother Maxey talk.”
Really tough cases might call for “the skit,” a meeting set up with Greg Baldwin, dean of the 12th-grade class, in which he pretended to have a temper tantrum and withdraw the student.
“It’s a lot of Academy Award-winning acting,” Baldwin said. But it can be life-changing when students decide to fight to stay in school and graduate, he said.
Throughout the week, mentors pushed and prodded their charges in ways big and small.
Some started the day by texting students to make sure they got out of bed. Others walked students to class or SOL review sessions, shutting the door behind them.
With the clock ticking, they reorganized schedules to focus time on classes students were failing.
“We’re down to the wheel-and-deal time: What does the kid need to do, and what’s the path of least resistance to do it?” Cohen said.
They also negotiated with teachers to see whether some of their most wayward students could make up missed work. Baldwin recounted using his master key to unlock a classroom door after hours so he could leave an overdue project on a teacher’s desk.
“The kids who are really far behind, they don't want to ask their teachers for a third, fourth, or fifth chance. So we go in and ask for them,” Baldwin said. That’s what he did for Jazzmin Knuckles, who was missing classes repeatedly.
Some mentors intervened for their students in other ways. Jessica Hillery, lead academic principal, advocated twice to modify suspensions for Jeffrey Shekie, a student who had some history of gang involvement.
Shekie felt defeated after the first suspension. “I thought I was going to be on the street selling drugs,” he said. But Hillery pushed to delay his suspension so he could attend a school choir trip out of town, an event school officials hoped would keep him motivated.
Many educators and researchers agree that advocates are important, particularly for students from poor families whose parents are less likely to play that role.
But some caution that too much hand-holding can backfire after graduation.
“If a lot is done for them, they won’t know how to do things for themselves when they no longer have those resources,” said Shaun Harper, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on success and minority men. He cited the example of student athletes, some of whom struggle to open a checking account or get a job after college.
Maxey echoed that concern. “Do we do too much? Absolutely we do too much. But what’s the alternative? Let them fail? That’s not going to help anyone.”
Advocates described a shift in thinking in American high schools from one of personal to shared responsibility, a trend fueled by federal accountability measures.
It used to be, “if kids can’t manage their credits and can’t get themselves to school, that’s not our role, that’s their role,” said Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Now, more people are talking about the high social costs of dropping out, he said.
One safeguard is tougher academic standards that make it more difficult for everyone to graduate. In Virginia, the Class of 2014 was the first to take all of the state’s updated, more rigorous end-of-course exams.
“The SOLS are unforgiving,” Maxey said. “You either pass them or you don’t.”
Ricardo Castellanos struggled mightily to pass them. The 19-year-old failed his U.S./Virginia History test three times, despite help from his mentor and hours of extra review. He was one of about 100 students who received a certified letter in May warning that they might not graduate in June and providing information about summer school.
Two weeks before graduation, Maxey asked Baldwin how many students would not be ready to graduate by June 14. He still counted at least 80. Most would be referred to summer school and become eligible for an August graduation. Some would be counted as dropouts.
But in the last week of school, the numbers started coming down quickly.
Castellanos passed the Virginia History SOL on his fourth attempt. Knuckles finally turned in her overdue physics labs. Morales failed his government final but spent the second-to-last day of school reworking one of his assignments for one more chance to pass the last class he still needed to graduate.
And Shekie was finishing his remaining course work and talking about joining the military.
“They are not putting in their blood, sweat and tears just to see you fail,” Shekie said.