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Jennings Sunday: Jennings' graduation rate jumps 4 percent

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School officials credit a graduation rate jump of nearly 4 percentage points at Jennings County High School to the attention they are paying to students.

That takes different forms, but it’s rooted in the fact that teachers, administrators and to some extent other students understand the importance of building relationships, Principal Tim Taylor said.

“Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Taylor said. “It’s corny to say, but it’s true.”

The Indiana Department of Education released statistics statewide last week that show Jennings County High School in North Vernon improved from an 81.7 percent graduation rate in the 2010-11 school year to an 85.6 percent graduation rate in the 2011-12 school year.

The mark bested the 85 percent rate during 2008-09, the only time in the past six school years the school’s rate surpassed the state average.

The latest rate falls a little shy of the state average of 88.7 percent. Nevertheless, Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers on May 8 ranked Jennings County 11th among 92 counties in the state for its effort to increase high school graduation rates and college readiness.

Terry Sargent, superintendent of Jennings County Schools, said he is proud of the ranking because it acknowledges what the school system is trying to accomplish.

He said he expects his high school’s graduation rate to rise to more than 90 percent as students benefiting from changes today work through the system.

He said the creation of an east wing for freshmen during a building expansion about three years ago is one way the school equips teachers to reach out to students when they are the most insecure and vulnerable. He described it as a school within a school.

School officials came up with the concept by examining similar practices in other communities that were proven to work, Assistant Principal Brent Comer said.

He said having a space of their own helps freshmen in different ways. Their lockers and core classes are in the wing. Their teachers work literally next door or around the corner from other freshmen-level teachers to help identify and solve whatever student problems come up.

Freshmen typically are filled with anxiety and self-doubt when they move from middle school to the scary halls of high school, Comer said. But with a wing of the school to call their own, those freshmen gain confidence early, setting the table for their success as seniors.

Comer said he knows from national studies that freshmen who fit in and find success within the first six weeks of school are more likely to graduate in the end.

“If you get a good start to the race, you probably have a chance to finish strong,” he said. “When we shrink it down so it’s not so scary, we see less disciplinary issues, better grades and happier students in general.”

Another way the school helps ease students’ transition to high school is through its student mentoring program, called Peer Resources for Our Students.

Taylor said each junior and senior teams up with five or fix freshmen at the start of every school year.

During orientation, the upperclassmen show freshmen how to make their way through the building and find their classes. They also exchange phone numbers and emails so the younger students can call on their older friend whenever they need advice.

Team-building activities are arranged through the year to develop trust and responsibility, Taylor said.

“The older students are like a big brother or big sister to the younger students,” Taylor said. “It helps to have someone older on your side when you come to a big school.”

Sargent said he can see the improved environment at the school in the faces of students at all grade levels. He said his students are positive and engaged — and they have fun.

He said he has never seen so many smiles.

“They want to be here,” Sargent said. “It’s making a difference.”

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