FORT DEFIANCE, Ariz. - Graduation rates at Window Rock High School surpassed Arizona's state average by five percentage points in 2012-2013. The four-year graduate rate revealed 138 of the high school's 173 students graduated, including 81 percent of its Native American or Alaskan Native students.
The state's graduation rate for Native American students is 54 percent.
Donna Manuelito, lead principal at Window Rock High School, explained the achievement is a marked improvement in comparison to figures for the 2011-2012 graduation rates, when the state's average was 77 percent, compared to Window Rock High School's 71 percent. In 2010-2011, graduation rates were 65 percent for Window Rock, while the state was 78 percent.
"That is an increase of 14 percent in two years," Manuelito said.
Dr. Deborah Jackson-Dennison, superintendent of Window Rock Unified School District, said in a press release that Window Rock High School student academic gains academically, as well increased attendance rates, show how effective school leadership and instructional programs are.
Manuelito said the school studied each student's attendance by tracking down the students who were missing school to see if they had transferred to another school or state.
"We just really started researching where our students were," Manuelito said.
That increased attention allowed some students who were a few credits shy of graduating to reenroll and finish their classes.
An alternative school within the school allows students who have failed a class to retake it within certain parameters while and be closely monitored by school officials.
The school also initiated a dress code for students and teachers, which Manuelito also said helped improve attendance because all the students were dressed alike, instead of some coming in more expensive clothes, which intimidated some students.
Manuelito said Window Rock High School outperformed all reservation schools because of a program that she feels is making all the difference for the students.
"We had to change the mindset of the students to take control of their own education," Manuelito said. "We structured time into schedules to allow teachers to become mentors of one class called ACE - Academics, Collaboration, and Excellence."
For the lower grades, the class allows for extra time for reading for some students and also allows students to take more responsibility for their own education. The classes are small with only 15 to 18 students. Upper grade level students who need help in math, reading, or writing are put in a "response to intervention" (RTI) class where the teacher knows what specific help that student needs.
"Teachers really stepped up their expectations and used this time to help students review their grades, transcripts, attendance, benchmark test scores, AIMS scores and other pertinent information that helps students make positive decisions," Manuelito said.
She said before students were only told that they did not pass a class, now they are told and shown why they did not pass the class and steps are taken to improve the skills they need to pass the class.
Also, the school is learning that students can read or write across the curriculum whether in English class or a vocational program that requires writing skills.
Jackson-Dennison explained that it has not been an easy task and that the school has been working to realign its six core principles of learning with the 'Embracing Change for Student Learning' school reform or the accountability model that was developed by the district's leadership in the early 2000s.
"Each time I hear about the improvements, I am not at all surprised because this particular model ensures accountability to student learning," she said. "Although I am not surprised, I am still elated with the progress all of our schools are showing academically as a result of our model."
Jackson-Dennison praised her administrators, teachers and staff for building the positive climate that is required for a school's success. She said that students and the support of their families is an extremely important component.
"Our high school students enjoy school and they want to be here to learn and that is really an important factor to academic growth and improvement overall," Jackson-Dennison said. "I am sincerely grateful to the students and their families for realizing the importance of their education every single day."
Window Rock Unified School District No. 8 is located in Fort Defiance, Ariz. The school district consists of five schools within a 35-mile radius.