The school day has just begun at the Academy at Old Cockrill in Nashville, when a loud air horn goes off in the hallway. The noise brings students and teachers from their classrooms with smiling faces, knowing looks and a buzz of excitement.
Everyone at this non-traditional high school knows what it means when Principal Elaine Fahrner sounds the air horn.
“It is my pleasure to introduce to you… three graduates this morning!” Fahrner shouts, with a whoop.
The place erupts in cheers and clapping as the first student’s name is called and she walks along the hallway receiving hugs and high fives—a scene that is repeated for two more students. In fact, several times a month at the Academy at Old Cockrill, there is this kind of celebration—every time a student achieves the required number of credits to graduate. Each student also gets to place a progress card with his or her photo among other graduates on what everyone here simply calls “The Wall.”
“For me, being a visual person, I need to be able to keep up with everybody,” explains Fahrner.
Initially, the photo cards list which courses or credits the student needs to complete in order to graduate– a required 22 credits in Tennessee since 2009 Tennessee Department of Education. Each time a course is completed, the student stamps it with a tiny, red graduation cap.
“So now I can come by and I can look and see Jasmine’s just about done and I can say I wonder what Renald’s doing– because he hasn’t stamped anything,” explains Fahrner, as she points to various photo cards on The Wall.
Fahrner’s goal is to offer a pathway to graduation for high school students who won’t make it the usual way before they turn 19 (as required by school district rules), but who are under age 22 and have at least 14 high school credits. It’s an alternative to graduation; but don’t label Old Cockrill an “alternative school.”
“Some see us as an opportunity to rid their schools of troublemakers,” says Fahrner. “We are not an alternative in that sense. We are alternative in the fact that we have a different way we do.”
The graduation rate for Nashville Public Schools is 76%, according to the 2011 Report Card released this month by the Tennessee Department of Education. That number reflects students who complete high school “on time,” defined as earning 22 credits within four years after starting 9th grade. Fewer Nashville public school students achieved that goal between the 2010 and 2011, according to the Report Card.
“I think there are two levels of drop outs,” says Fahrner. “There are ones that can’t academically do it. And then there are others that life has started for them, and sometimes it’s just too difficult to give up a day. And what we try to do is be flexible enough that traditional high schools can’t do.”
Students at Old Cockrill are allowed flexible classroom time, options for online learning, frequent one-on-one meetings about their progress, and additional support to make the grade– things that Fahrner admits wouldn’t happen in many public high schools.
“It says that high schools are too big and counselors are overworked. We (Fahrner and her staff) are all up in everyone’s business all day making sure. Like the kids that come in (to see me) have a spreadsheet and that child’s name and every class they need to get the requirements.
“When you look at schools that are as large as small cities in Tennessee, the very nature of how they’re built is detrimental to a lot of kids.”
In those environments, Fahrner says, students might wind up missing graduation because they lack one or two credits. The reasons can range from skipping school to help out at home, having a baby, not understanding English—or simply not paying attention to their credit count.
Fahrner tells the story of one student who came to Old Cockrill because she failed English IV. That left the student with one too few credits to graduate, even though her other grades were A’s and B’s.
“Are you kidding me? How did that happen? She said that her mother was very ill and she was responsible for guiding her younger sisters on the bus to get them to school. So, she was at school everyday by second period. And I’m thinking English IV must have been first period. She said ‘Yes ma’am. I went to my teacher…She told me to try harder.’ And I said ‘I can’t think of anyone trying any harder than you are right now.’ She came to us, and in nine weeks she was a graduate.”
Other stories are similar to Jessica Farley, who flunked out of 4 high schools—public and private—before she came to Old Cockrill after being diagnosed with a learning disability.
“I guess it was just about me learning my way, which I feel like I’m a visual learner,” says Farley, who expects to graduate this month. “So now that I do know the skills I need to learn, it’s easier. I’m doing well. I’m actually preparing for college!”
Christopher Thomas also hopes to soon be able to go to college. With mentoring and online courses, Thomas has reached a milestone he didn’t think possible at other schools he attended.
“This is the last test I have to take, and I graduate today if I finish it.”
Thomas admits he’s nervous, but confident as he completes an online test in government. Since 2009 when the Academy at Old Cockrill opened, more than 340 students have graduated; students who most likely would not have finished high school otherwise.
In the beginning, Fahrner’s goal was simply to help those students obtain a full high school diploma. But she now says that aim was not high enough.
“Diplomas don’t mean anything if you don’t do something with them,” says Fahrner. “A couple of years ago, ACT wasn’t really in our vocabulary, but now we are offering ACT prep. I think the average ACT score for kids coming in to us is like 13 or 14. But they really weren’t seeing the importance of it because they had not planned on doing anything with it. So now, the fact that they’re even talking about wanting to raise their ACT scores is amazing.”
Chris Thomas can now join that conversation. He passed his online test—just in time to join the hallway celebration, bringing to four the number of graduates on this day.
Principal Fahrner is giddy with happiness as she shouts the announcement. “Give it up for the last graduate today at the academy at Old Cockrill, Mr. Chris Thomas!”
As the celebration continues, Fahrner still isn’t satisfied. Her goal is to bring in more students BEFORE they drop out or age out, when they first realize they’re short on credits needed to graduate. She has a simple argument for more funding of programs like this.
“They (high school graduates) are going to spend more, which means they’re going to be less likely to be incarcerated, less likely to be on food stamps. That’s where the drain is. And if I could, I’d have everybody get a little dividend check every year that says ‘This is what happens. This is the money you saved because these children graduated and went on and had a better life.’