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Helping Students on the Road to Graduation: A Q&A Session on Credit Recovery with DC Public Schools

DC Public Schools (DCPS) launched a redesigned credit recovery program in School Year 2018-19 to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed and are held to rigorous standards of excellence.

We sat down with district administrators Shemia Anderson and Liz Wiemers Smith to hear how DCPS shifted policies and resources to support high school students on their path to graduation.

Students in credit recovery programming participate in rigorous, individualized, competency-based courses that are aligned to DCPS curriculum standards. These courses enable students to reengage with content that they didn’t master in their original class. 


 How is your approach to credit recovery different from other models? 

The DCPS model differs from other models because it is 100% designed in-house. We do not use a third-party program and that provides several unique benefits. First, our model enables us to ensure that the content completely aligns with DCPS curricular expectations and meets DCPS standards of rigor. It also means we can employ DCPS teachers so students can get direct contact and support and work to build relationships with adults in the building. Finally, it allows schools the flexibility to tailor scheduling to best meet the needs of their students.

 Why is a self-paced, competency-based model important?

It is important for us to enable students to move through classes at their own pace and feel successful with the material they're learning. We don't want students to just come in, do what they need to do, and get out. We want students to actually master the concepts. That’s the foundation of the competency-based model.

And one of the things we've noticed while working in the credit recovery program is that students have other competing priorities. Staying for three hours to take credit recovery courses or being able to finish a class within two to three months is not a possibility for all our students—especially if we want to hold them to rigorous standards. The self-paced, competency-based model allows students to work on their own time so they can meet those standards at their own pace.

This model also allows students to earn more than one credit per term. Previously, they would only be able to get one extra credit. If a student is three credits behind going into senior year, they might not graduate. But this gives them that opportunity to earn those credits more quickly when they're motivated and focused.

 How did you design and schedule your new credit recovery program?

When we switched to the competency-based model, to get everyone aligned, we held a three-day training with our Office of Teaching and Learning, which built out the curriculum (and updates the materials yearly). Each school has someone like a credit recovery coordinator, pathways coordinator, or assistant principal positioned to manage or monitor any announcements or changes to the program within their school.

DCPS students can take credit recovery courses before and after school, and most of our programming is held in person for at least an hour. It’s important to offer flexibility to students and teachers, depending on who's available, when they’re available, and how long they're willing to work.  Each high school develops its own credit recovery schedules. They work with school counselors to see which courses need to be offered based on what they see in students’ transcripts. Then, the counselors work with students to create individualized plans for credit recovery courses.

We encourage schools to look at the work students have already completed when they took the course the first time to determine which tasks need more attention. If a class has eight required curricular tasks, for example, and a student already passed tasks one through four during their first time taking the class, we can input those grades, so they don't have to retake them.

Students are required to attend three credit recovery classes per week. To encourage attendance and participation, students are given the flexibility to pick the three days that work best for them.

 How do you staff credit recovery courses?

These courses are taught by instructors who are certified in the relevant content areas, and there are typically 15 students for every one teacher. We also ensure our SPED teachers are in classrooms with students with individualized education programs to help content specialists.

It was critical from the onset of the program that we received buy-in from teachers because we know that relationship-building is especially important when trying to help students recover credits.

In some cases, we prioritized placing students into classes with their original teacher because that teacher is familiar with the competencies each student needs to learn.

 How do you monitor the progress of credit recovery programs across schools?

We closely monitor classes through our credit recovery dashboard, which allows us to see data like enrolled students, grades, the amount of time it’s taken a student to pass a class, and completion rates. Our team also visits individual schools to meet with our “graduation teams” to dissect the data and ensure the school knows what they need to do to be successful.

Our graduation teams typically meet bi-weekly and usually consist of principals and assistant principals, pathway coordinators, school counselors, support staff, and sometimes social workers or intervention specialists.

 How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your program?

The pandemic allowed us to innovate on our program virtually and gain flexibility. For example, if we’re unable to identify an Algebra 1 teacher at one school, students can take that course virtually at another school. Students can take these courses from a classroom or library at their school with staff supervision, or at their home. We’re leveraging technology to make sure that students always have those opportunities.

The pandemic was also a great reminder to have more empathy for students’ situations. And during the pandemic, students and families were able to understand what educators were going through, as well. I remember having a conversation with a parent on Zoom while my own children were in the background. That helped her see that we were all going through the same thing and that we were in it together. 

 How do you help students and families become aware of and invested in credit recovery?

We’re constantly thinking outside of the box. We are offering incentives to students like taking trips outside of school to reward them for meeting standards and passing their classes. Continuing to think about how we incentivize students is going to be crucial for class attendance. 

After 18 unexcused absences, students are withdrawn from the class and receive a “W.” This can be a wake-up call that can help them reinvest in the program and set a plan for recovery.

Sometimes, credit recovery coordinators will raise awareness of the program by participating in what we call “open houses”—events like ice cream socials or back-to-school nights where they talk with families about the program. We’ve even invited families out for dinner to help them sign up for the program.

 How have you seen this redesigned program impacting students? 

This program reflects our best practice to recover credits early on, rather than waiting until the student’s junior or senior year, which can cause some anxiety for students concerned with completing everything on time. That’s why counselors and coordinators come in early on to build individual plans with students and get them on track to graduate. We want them to enter their sophomore year and take initiative. That’s setting our students up for success.

Our students are learning how to advocate for themselves. Having students see adults work to help get them back on track makes them feel valued. They know their coordinator, teacher, and counselor are collaborating to put them first.


Learn More About Credit Recovery With Our Staffing and Scheduling Guide


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