A weekend interview with Teresa Caraker, credit recovery teacher at Hudson High School
Next week, Florida's high schools are supposed to receive final word on their 2010-11 graduation and dropout rates as the state prepares to release the schools' annual grades. Hudson High School in Pasco County expects to see strong improvement, and its leaders give a lot of the credit to the dropout prevention team that has focused on struggling students and their academic and social needs. Teresa Caraker runs the school's credit recovery lab, which gives students a chance to make up missed credits and get on track for graduation. She spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about her role, her students and the school's dropout prevention philosophy.
We're talking about the school and how it has improved its graduation rate dramatically in the past year. What do you attribute that to? How do you place what you do and your role in the scheme of things?
We're a component of the school graduation rate improvement, of course. But it really is a team, school-wide effort. There was a huge push last year, especially (because) we had a lot of new students come in last year with rezoning. ... There really was a school-wide effort to make sure that students understood what their role was in achieving their graduation requirements and informing students what they needed to do to be on track for graduation. I worked very closely with all these students' teachers. So it really is a group effort. It doesn't make any sense for them to do credit recovery in here and make up credits, and then to fail their classes during the day. It just doesn't make any sense. So I work very closely with their teachers. We'll say, 'Okay, Johnny, I realize he does not do well with extended response answers so he is going to struggle with that in your classroom.' We work on that together on what can make him successful in the various classrooms.
How do you figure out each student and where they need to be? It seems like it's got to be very intensive when you're working with 20 kids an hour, six hours a day.
It is intensive. In order to do this you have to be a very good listener. The kids will generally tell you what it is they need. If you're listening well enough, you can pick up on it. Sometimes it's hidden underneath language that I might not find appropriate. But they are still telling me what they need and I have to be attuned to that and pick up on whatever it is. And every student is different and their circumstance is different. Some of them struggle academically. Some of them struggle at home, and then that translates to them struggling academically. You really have to diagnose where their issue is and kind of help them through that. It's an amazing process. I feel blessed to watch them grow from where they are at the beginning of the year to where they are at the end of the year.
How do you let them know that they are doing well so they don't feel like they are still floundering and maybe drop out, even as they're moving through?
That is a constant battle. Perseverance and endurance is something that most of these students struggle with. They will do really well for a period of time and then they get tired. They just get tired. So it's a matter of, 'Okay, it's a marathon and you've got to make it through the marathon. You're only at the fifth mile marker. It's time to really buckle down now. We've got to make it through the semester.' And we are constantly as a team looking at data and where is each student. It does come down to each individual student.
You see kids in elementary school respond to certain things. Are they the same things in high school?
People are people. We all have needs. We all need to feel like we belong. We all need to feel like we are being successful. If I came to work every morning and I felt unsuccessful by 9 a.m., I'd shut down too. And a lot of these students, especially the ones who struggle academically, if they come to school each day and feel like they're unsuccessful by the end of first period, they shut down for the rest of the day. And so part of my job is helping them understand where they are being successful. Because every student has things that they are really good at, and everyone has things that they struggle with. That is true for adults as well. So I think when I relay that to them, I relay my own weaknesses, and my own strengths. But I have a job that I love, I am going for a career that works on my strengths. I want that for them too. In here we talk not only about credit recovery, but what are you doing beyond that? What do you want to do with your life?
Sometimes we hear this (credit recovery) is going to be easy. You can make up a semester, they do it in summer sometimes in 10 days. Is it easy?
No. That is a very common misconception. Actually I am doing an extended school day program now with students who are just starting in APEX. We have been here just three days and they are already feeling like they can't do this, it is hard. It's really hard. There is nothing easy about it. There is a reason we call it earning a high school diploma. You have to work for it. And that's where the endurance piece comes in. That's where they get tired. And then we have to look back at how far they have come, and say, 'You can make it.' That's what I do. I know they can do it. Sometimes they don't feel like they can. They need that reminder that they can.
The state does not always count graduates as graduates if they don't do it in a certain period of time ...
Right. That's new. That's going to go into effect this year, which is really going to damage a lot of graduation rates across the state of Florida.
But does it damage the esteem or the desire of the students who you see? Do you think they care about that?
It's interesting, because it does. Most of the students I see really want that high school diploma. They don't want a GED. They want a high school diploma. And if they are so far behind and they don't feel there are any options besides the GED, it does damage them and it is something they carry with them for the rest of their lives. That is one of the things I really talk to the students about, What is it that you want? Because if you want a high school diploma, it is within your reach. We are giving you the opportunities to come during school, after school. The opportunities are here for you to get on track. But you're going to have to work. Two times, three times as hard as the other students who aren't behind. Are you willing to put that commitment in?
What do they say?
Some say, 'Yes I am,' because that high school diploma means something to them. I have a student, she will be the first person in her family to ever receive a high school diploma. And that is something she is really really pushing for. And I want that for her.
And I guess that also means doing it in time so that you can walk across the stage, get the cap and gown with the recognition.
That means so much to most of these students. That's why at the beginning of the year I take a picture of them in their cap and gown. I tape it to the front of their notebook. Because I want them to see that every single day. This is your goal. This is what you are working for. And on those days when you don't feel like doing it, when you've had a bad night, when you've had something go on outside of school that is affecting your day, like a student I talked to this morning, her best friend just died on Monday, and she is here today. I'm so proud of her that she came. She'll cry through most of the day. But she came. So I think we all need that visual reminder of what our goals are. And crossing the stage for most of them is very very important. With their class. They really want to do that. There is something about that bond with that class that most of them do want. And most of them at the beginning of the year feel there's no hope in getting there. And by around February, March they start to feel, 'I can really do this.'
What advice do you give to parents who have students in these positions so they can help you and help their kids to be successful?
Recognize how hard they are working. A lot of kids will come home exhausted because they have worked hard all day. Other students need that extra push to pass all their classes. So getting on eSembler is huge. If you see any zeroes in there, if they have missed any classes. Make sure the assignments are turned in on time. Alloting time for them to go to sleep at a decent hour, because many students will stay up very late at night, very late. And then they come in exhausted. You can't function when you come in exhausted. Typical things.
What about for the kids then? Is there anything special they should do to be sure they don't fall behind? A kid who may not ever come into your class. What do you suggest to them to make sure they never come into your class?
That every class matters. A lot of them will get the impression, 'It's only P.E. It doesn't matter.' It matters. It's a graduation requirement. Every class you're in, every day, it matters. And that's why our team logo is, 'Everything you do matters. Everything you don't do matters. What impact will you have?' Because if they choose not to do an assignment, everything they don't do, it matters. And it will impact their grade in that class. Everything they do, it matters. It will increase their grade. Everything they don't do, it matters. That's what I would tell students who are not in here. Don't ever get here. It's twice the work. The students that work in my room are the hardest working students in the school, because they do twice the work.
Anything I didn't ask that I should ask?
It does rely on the students making a decision to graduate. We talked on Monday about making the decision to graduate and doing it. That's a connection that many students don't do. They decide they want to graduate. But then, are your actions meeting what you say you want to do? Are your actions meeting that goal?
Sometimes teenagers are dumb.
Yeah. They can be. They just don't think beyond the moment. They don't problem solve around where they are and where they want to go. They don't make those connections unless you kind of lead them through that process. And they are kids. We sometimes forget that because they're in these big bodies. They look like grownups. But they are still kids and they are still learning how to work their way through life.