Forty-four students began the school year in Kelley Edwards’ transitions classes at Helena High School. Forty-one of them finished the school year this week, passing nearly all of their classes in the process — a big success for the pilot project aimed at improving dropout rates.
The transitions class was designed to offer academic and emotional support to students who need a little extra attention early on in their high school careers. Edwards works with each student individually. She checks their grades. She keeps tabs on homework and missing assignments. And, most important of all, she shows students she is vested — not only in their success at school, but in them as human beings.
Sophomore Conner Doney said the class is the reason he didn’t flunk any classes during first semester, and inevitably didn’t have to retake credits.
“I never was good at finishing my work in middle school,” Doney said. “There are much more fun things to do and it was always a fight with my parents. Now I have more consistent grades because I turn in my work. (Edwards) pushes us to be sure we got our work done, and she tries to understand what work we have to do to help us.”
James Freeman, 15, said he had a hard time in middle school. From failing classes to getting picked on about his long hair, it was all he could do to just finish the day. Things this year have changed.
There is more diversity at Helena High than he found at East Valley Middle School, so he doesn’t get grief anymore for his long hair, and his grades have significantly improved. The lowest grade he got first quarter was a C plus.
Freeman said many of his friends talk about dropping out when they turn 16 and so they slack off and don’t care about school. But Freeman said it feels like his teachers care, which helps him want to graduate.
“You can’t get a good job without it,” he said, adding that he’d like to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.
This semester, while not perfect, his grades are high enough to again pass every class.
Improving the school’s dropout rate is one of the reasons Principal Greg Upham shifted around dollars in his budget to fund the position that, for two years, was paid for with federal stimulus dollars.
Helena High has a 74.4 percent graduation rate, while Capital has an 81.1 percent rate. Both are below state average.
Upham said he sees value in the class and is hoping to see positive results in two years when the first group is set to graduate. He describes the class as an advocacy to help students navigate the education system. His said it’s the first time the school has worked beyond academics and with the whole child.
“This helps them feel connected and maneuver through the system,” Upham said.
Edwards said ultimately it’s up to the students to decide if they want to succeed, and she says other teachers are often in her classes helping their students. But many give Edwards more credit.
Upham said Edwards has the appropriate personality because she’s highly passionate, has great interpersonal kills and love kids. He described Edwards as a liaison between the students, the staff and their home.
Maggie Doney has two sons — Conner and Angus — in transitions and said Edwards is not only an amazing teacher, but an amazing person, too.
“They connect with (Edwards),” Doney said of her children. “She works directly with kids that struggle and works with their individual teachers. She sets up a plan based on their individual needs. I think her job description is different for every child. She caters to each individual.”
Last week Edwards was talking with one student about how to approach his mother regarding a sensitive family matter. She assisted another student with a research question and helped navigate what is trustworthy information on the Internet and what is not. And, she gave another student who needed some extra help after school a ride home.
Freshman Latassa Thompson typically spends her time in transitions doing math — the hardest subject for her.
“Without this class, I wouldn’t have the grades I have now,” she said.
Edwards wasn’t involved in the discussions of whether to keep or cut the class, but said she is thrilled to see it stay.
“It’s really crucial to have in our school,” she said. “Not all kids come out of eighth grade with the right tools to succeed, unfortunately, and we want to provide that level of support for whatever they need.”
Edwards is humble and says she doesn’t feel like she is the reason students are coming out of the class doing so well.
“I’ve worked really closely with all their teachers and staff, many of which come in and spend time with students one-on-one,” she said. “I think they see the power of getting that one-on-one time with kids that you often don’t get when there are 20 or 30.”
Edwards really gets to know her students, their families and the issues they face.
“I feel like you meet them, you see their challenges, and would do anything to help, because they deserve that,” she said.
Edwards said it’s a kind of tough love, and while the class may look chaotic from the outside, the time is used to achieve what each student needs.
“I’m able to do what other teachers want to do,” she said. “Sometimes we have to get creative.”
Edwards said sometimes success in school is not about intelligence.
“These kids are all smart,” she said. “But it’s about giving them the right tools.”
Edwards hopes her students learn a few traits: communicate with their teachers, advocate for themselves, use good manners, work hard and never give up.
Maggie Doney is glad to hear the class will remain as an option for students next year.
“I think that high school really needs the class,” she said. “A lot of kids get lost and this is really beneficial for a lot of them.”
Upham said all the individual attention is time well spent, and he is pleased with the success he is seeing.
“It’s the epitome of individualized education,” he said. “As a principal you can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org