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New Mission High School elevates aspirations by using GPA's and other data

Posted by Your Town  March 11, 2011 11:58 AM

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(Photo by David Binder)


“I know that I can’t get into the college I want with the grade point average (GPA) I have now. I’m working on getting it up to at least a 3.5,” says a New Mission High School sophomore.

She’s only in the tenth grade but is already pushing hard to get ready for college. How did she get so motivated? One reason is data.

New Mission faculty are putting key numbers in front of students, showing them exactly where they stand and what they need to do to be on track for college. “The campaign that we’re waging right now is: You’re going to college, and you have to get a good GPA,” says Headmaster Naia Wilson.

Making college aspirations part of the culture

According to guidance counselor Kelli Jones, motivating students to think about college early is key. She says, typically, “students all start to get their act together around junior year, senior year. We’re trying to make that happen earlier.”

To that end, Ms. Jones and her colleagues have implemented a college awareness curriculum in the school’s freshman and sophomore advisory program. That effort has contributed to an impressive college-going rate — 89% of the class of 2010 was accepted to college; 60% of graduates were accepted to four-year colleges.

Going from college for most to college for all

Though pleased with the success of many students, New Mission staff members want all students to be competitive candidates for the colleges of their choice and for financial aid.

“The biggest challenges have been getting the kids to understand that from the day they walk in, their grades matter. Everything they do matters from the beginning of freshman year,” says Jones.

A major factor in college admissions is the cumulative grade point average (GPA), with selective colleges requiring a 3.0 or above. Earning low grades in the ninth grade can make it hard to catch up later.

In the past, New Mission staff had trouble getting students’ attention in time. After they posted students’ GPA data in the main hallway for everyone to see, students started listening.

Public data displays make the difference

A lively data display in the school’s main hallway now shows the distribution of GPAs at each grade level and ranks students by ID number (to protect students’ privacy). Ninth-grade English teacher Nachelle Gordon says, “I saw a big change in work ethic after those GPAs were posted.”

Students began preparing harder for tests and got on top of homework. A freshman who struggled to stay on top of assignments in the past says that when he saw the charts go up, “I started paying attention. . . The [data] helps you understand exactly what you need to fix.”

“It keeps you aware of how the people around you are doing, “ another student explains, “what that’s going to be like when you try to fill out college applications and there’s somebody next to you that has a 3.5, whereas you have a 2.9. . . It made me think about how this year and next year I really have to go hard.”

From wake-up to follow-up

Raising aspirations was an important first step but not the end goal. Jones explains, “They want to be at the top but they don’t necessarily know what to do to get there. So it’s having that conversation in between. Okay, so you’re in this category and you want to be in this one. What is it that you’re going to do differently?”

In her role as guidance counselor, Jones uses the GPA data to talk with students about efforts they can make and supports they need to be successful.

Students get similar support from their teachers, who have posted attendance bar graphs and other data on their doors, helping students to see how their performance on quizzes and homework contribute to overall course performance.

A new type of conversation

During the school’s annual degree audits, when each student sits with the headmaster and guidance counselor to review his or her progress, Headmaster Wilson noticed students were more aware of the urgency of improving their grades. She says, “They asked really good questions. The conversation totally changed.”

With help from the Boston Plan for Excellence, an organization that helps Boston schools use data to improve student outcomes, New Mission staff are looking at other ways to engage students with college readiness data, including PSAT, SAT, and Advanced Placement exam results. With all this data, they are moving students from vague goals to a clear understanding of what it takes to graduate ready for college success.

This article is excerpted from FOCUS: Making Data Public, a newsletter for Boston teachers produced by the Boston Plan for Excellence. Visit www.bpe.org to read the whole publication.

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