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Coaching kids to stay in school

Victor Rodriguez is quickly becoming a familiar face at Jemison High School. He has lunch with the students, attends extracurricular events, and even stays in touch with parents.

Rodriguez, known by most as “Doc” (he is also a medic in the U.S. Navy), fills a unique role at the school. He is a graduation coach.

As a former teacher and coach himself, Rodriguez is no stranger to education. Today, he spends his time making sure kids stay in school.

“Nowadays, parents don’t always hear the positive things about their kids,” he said Wednesday.

One of his primary goals is to get a better understanding of what causes a student’s deficiency — why students don’t attend school regularly, or why they aren’t passing a particular course.

In many cases, at-risk students are forced to provide for their family. This can lead to poor attendance, especially in cases where parents do not push their children to get an education.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if not for our graduation coach,” Principal Alan Thompson said.

In one year, Jemison High has increased its graduation rate from 73 percent to 77 percent. The state measures graduation rates based on the percentage of high school freshmen that go on to complete school.

The lagging graduation rate is the main reason the school didn’t make its adequate yearly progress goals three years in a row.

“This is the first year in the last four we’ve made AYP,” Thompson pointed out.

In an effort to reverse the dropout cycle, Jemison High has implemented several new programs. A grant has enabled the school to offer in-school suspension three days a week, as an alternative to out-of-school suspension.

A new policy requires students with incomplete assignments to turn their work in by the following Monday. Those who do not turn in their assignments must attend a study hall under the supervision of Rodriguez.

Also, a reading emphasis is having visible results in all categories.

“When you’ve got math teachers teaching reading, you know they’re trying to help our students,” Thompson said.

An early warning system notifies the parents of all students with three unexcused absences.

Students with five unexcused absences are referred to the juvenile court system. A judge brings in all the parents and warns them about the risks of truancy.

“Judge (Rhonda) Hardesty has been a great friend in education because she lets these kids know they need to be in school,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the shift in grades resulting from the opening of Jemison Intermediate School could help not only academically but also socially — by separating ninth graders from older students.

In the future, Jemison High will house only 10th through 12th grades. Ninth graders will move down to the middle school.

One theory supposes that freshmen who befriend seniors have a higher risk of dropping out because, after the seniors graduate, the idea of not going to school becomes more attractive.

“By separating those, it’s going to keep that senior influence away from freshmen,” Thompson said.