ROSELLE — Abraham Clark High School Principal Rashon Mickens was resplendent in his red college cap and gown, the marching band and color guard put on a show and the school mascot greeted everyone with high-fives.
The first day of classes at Abraham Clark High School was a cause for celebration. This was the first time since 2011 the school welcomed back students without being on the state Department of Education’s “watch list.” The school had been classified for seven years as a priority school by the state, identified as “among the lowest-performing 5 percent” of schools in New Jersey during a three-year evaluation period, according to the NJDOE website.
Mickens, who has been principal since 2012, said it was a relief to see the school performing better in areas such as standardized test scores, absenteeism and graduation rates, the improvements that led to the state to remove its designation.
On Wednesday, Sept. 6, the first day of school, Mickens ticked off the improvements. In June, 89 percent of the senior class graduated, up from 68 percent in 2011. On any given day during the last school year, about 8 percent of students were absent. Seven years ago, that number was about 12 percent. And, as for standardized testing, Mickens said he didn’t have those numbers but that the school had made “significant improvements.” And the dropout rate stands at 0 percent, he added.
Amari Perez, a senior, said she didn’t need to hear the numbers to know there was a cultural shift afoot.
“When I was a freshman walking through the hallways, there was a different atmosphere,” Perez said. “A lot of the students didn’t really care about coming to school as much, or previous years before I got here. People didn’t care. Everyone hung out. Nobody really went to class. Teachers weren’t honest about it as much. And as time has gone by, people are instilled with this certain ambition of where they want to succeed. Nobody wants to be at the bottom of their class anymore. It’s not cool to be walking around in the halls. Everyone is excited for school and excited to graduate.“
Mickens said that excitement has been generated, in part, by several new teaching and course initiatives designed to make high school more challenging and prepare students to make a transition to college.
Diana Lobozzo, the school’s director of special programs, said the school has partnered with local colleges and universities, including the Rutgers School of Health Professionals. Working with Rutgers, Abraham Clark offers students four different tuition-free courses that simultaneously give them high school and college credit.
“I believe that helps with our graduation rate,” Lobozzo said. “If a student knows they are going to take these courses and they are going to go right into college, get accepted into college easily, that gives them a little bit of a boost. One of my students last year actually had 18 college credits going into college because of the AP courses she took, which is a whole semester for free.”
Mickens said students have also benefited from the school’s relationship with Edmentum, a Minneapolis-based program that provides online learning and teaching, and partners with about 500 schools and 400,000 students in New Jersey alone. Mickens said Edmentum has benefited the school in several ways, but perhaps none more important than the credit-recovery program. When students fail a class, there’s no benefit to punishing them, but Edmentum helps give those students a second chance to do the work, pass the class and earn the credits. For a handful of students, the program made the difference between graduating and falling short.
“Edmentum allows us that opportunity through online courses through our partnership,” Mickens said. “They offer a robust curriculum that allows our students to challenge themselves. It’s being looked at closely by the teachers that oversee the program. We have a lead teacher who oversees the program and each course the students take we have a teacher there who walks the through the curriculum and the course study, if you will.”
And Edmentum is flexible enough to be used by students at both ends of the academic spectrum, Mickens said. Some students use it to bolster their college transcripts through what he described as first-time credit or credit accrual.
“For example, we have students here who say, ‘Hey Mr. Mickens, I want to beef up my transcript a little bit. We’ve taken all the necessarily requirements here at Abraham Clark High School, but we want an additional course or two to fit into our schedule but we don’t really have time to do it during the day. We’re working. We come here part of the day and then we’re working in the afternoon or evenings to support our families or to save up for college’ or whatever the case may be,” he said. “They have the opportunity to go through Edmentum to do the first-time course credit as well, the credit accrual.”
According to Edmentum Chief Operating Officer Ryan Hagedorn, Edmentum has a cool factor that engages students.
“Our real-world examples really help connect the students to the why,” Hagedorn said in a recent interview. “Why do I need to take algebra I, and how can it help me in the greater scheme of my life? Things like, the first unit activity in our algebra course is building a deck and providing the measurements or setting up a music venue and figuring out the capacity of the music venue.”
Edmentum is an aid for teachers, too. Lobozzo said it fosters communication between teachers in various subjects on various sides of the building, helping to break down the traditional teaching style often referred to as the “egg crate approach,” in which teachers go into their classrooms, close the door and don’t communicate with one another.
Now, Lobozzo said, the ability to track the progress of students and communicate with their other teachers is at their fingertips.
That’s good news for Renaee Smith, whose son graduated in the spring. She said the teachers have been one of the biggest reasons for Abraham Clark’s improvement. In particular, she said they displayed great patience with her son and it paid off because he is now attending Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
“They have that compassion,” she said of the teachers, adding, “they have that desire toward the students who achieve and progress and take that next step and transition from high school. I’m really proud that the school has gotten off this list because they (the students) have worked really hard, the teachers have worked very hard.
“The principal, everyone here is very dedicated to these students and dedicated to make sure they succeed in school and beyond.”