MEMPHIS, Tn. — White high school students had higher graduation rates than Black students in every state before the pandemic. However, some schools are changing these statistics, even in the face of the pandemic, putting more students of color on track to graduate.
At Oakhaven High School in Memphis Tennessee, graduation rates are increasing quickly for all students. It’s been a collaborative effort from district leaders and school staff to provide resources and emotional support for students at risk of not graduating and slipping through the cracks.
“They fear graduation because they don't really understand what's next,” said 12th-grade teacher Tiffany Holman. “Graduating to them is final to a lot of them, and so their fear stops them a lot of times.”
Holman has been teaching for five years. She left social work to teach.
“Before I started teaching, I was a social worker, and those people were in economic duress. And I would always ask them, ‘How did you get here? What happened?’ It would always go back to they didn't finish school or they didn't take it seriously. And so, I was like, ‘I'm reacting. I need to be proactive.’ That's what put me in the classroom.”
She found the things holding her students back from graduating often happened outside the classroom and impacted students of color more deeply than their white peers.
“I call them weapons of mass distraction,” said Holman. “Rides to school, working, sleeping because they work, they have to support their families. Some students have their own children. Some students are a part of affiliations that they shouldn't be a part of.”
Those distractions kept more than a quarter of students at this Memphis, Tennessee high school from graduating. Mrs. Holman saw Black women falling behind most.
“It's one thing to be African-American. It's compounded complexity when you have African-American and female,” she said.
To help, the district launched Project Graduation for all its students. They offer night school classes and allow students to make up credits missed during the pandemic. Teachers are also focusing more on students’ emotional health.
Mrs. Holman likes to call it the,“No failure option. So, you do not have the option to fail. And what that means: whatever you need, we're going to fill in the gaps.”
It’s worked. Last year, 83% of Black girls in the Memphis-Shelby County School District graduated from high school on time. That’s higher than the graduation rate for every other demographic in the district. The next highest graduating group was white female students at 80%, Black male students at 74%, and white male students at 67%.
This is a big success as graduation rates in the last two school years fell for all students in at least 20 states that have reported this data so far.
Experts expect the graduation rate gap to become even wider for students of color because many had to work or care for younger siblings during remote learning.
“What you do is you play into their self-esteem, so we build them up,” said Holman of how to close that gap.
Students feel the support, and it fuels them.
“That just makes me feel good. It makes me more motivated because they'll tell me, ‘Oh, you're doing a good job’ and they make me want to do a better job,” said 12th-grader KeNya Johnson.
The deeper support Johnson has received at this school helped senior her get back on track to graduate after transferring. She struggled to get at her last school.
“It was majority white, and so it was a little harder to, you know, to keep up,” said Johnson. "Financially, I probably had a harder time than other people had, or like family situations at home, but I just knew I couldn’t let what was going on at home impact my grades."
She now has the support to graduate on time and was able to make up lost credits through night school courses. Now, she is even taking college courses during her final year of high school. All of this work is to make her big dream possible.
“I want to become a nursery nurse because I love working with babies,” Johnson said.
Her success is only helped by seeing successful, educated Black women run her school and classes. Having those representative role models plays a big part in these young women seeing the path to success in front of them as well.
“They need to see the example, they need to see that period,” said Holman. “The school has to be a beacon of light, so we have to come here every day, shining.”
The light lit here by these teachers and educators, is one they soon hope will be a model and beacon of light brightening and enriching the lives of students across the country.