The right mix of programs will improve academics and help your district attract and retain students.
By Jermaine White and Misty Reinhardt
This article originally appeared in the January 2024 School Business Affairs magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO). The text herein does not necessarily represent the views or policies of ASBO International, and use of this imprint does not imply any endorsement or recognition by ASBO International and its officers or affiliates.
It’s the mission of a school system to ensure that every student gets a high-quality education—one that prepares them for the world. That means understanding what students need from their schools and identifying ways to provide it.
To be successful, school districts have to be flexible and creative, and in most cases must provide multiple options to address students’ interests. Offering an array of academic programs that accommodate and support students’ different interests, goals, and personal situations can help your district meet this goal and help set up your students for success.
So what exactly does this strategy look like, and how does a district go about accomplishing it?
Harnett County Schools in North Carolina is an example of a district that has done this well. The 19,600-student school district borders the major metropolitan regions of Raleigh and Fayetteville and includes a military base. Harnett County is a transient community, and families who move into the district are seeking specific paths for their students.
To support the diverse expectations of the community, the district offers a robust selection of educational courses, pathways, and programming that have helped the district attract and retain students, even during the COVID-19 pandemic: Year-round school. New for 2023–2024, Harnett County Schools created a year-round school option for students in grades K–5. Students attend school for a cycle of 45 instructional days followed by 15 vacation days, year-round.
The option has been especially popular with military families who want to maximize time with their children when a parent returns from deployment, or who transfer to the district during the summer and want to enroll their children immediately. The program was capped at 130 students in the first year and already has a waiting list.
Career and technical education courses. The district offers 75 career and technical education courses in such program areas as agriculture, business, health, marketing and entrepreneurship, trades and industrial careers, and more.
More than 10,000 students are enrolled in those courses, many of which offer them the opportunity to earn certified credentials in areas such as firefighting, carpentry, masonry, electrical trades, food handling, Adobe software, nursing, pharmaceutical technology, and more.
Early college. In partnership with Central Carolina Community College, the district’s early college program allows students to graduate from high school with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.
Advanced placement courses. The district has four high schools. Students have the option of taking advanced placement courses in English 3 and 4, U.S. history, European history, probability and statistics, computer science, biology, calculus, and chemistry.
Alternative graduation program. The district provides programming to help students who are struggling to meet the number of credits the state requires to graduate. It’s improved the four-year graduation rate from 79.2% in 2014 to 86.6% last year.
A virtual school. The district launched a virtual academy when schools were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It currently offers asynchronous learning to more than 120 students in grades K–12. Families may select this option because of scheduling issues or behavioral issues, or because it better fits their student’s learning style.
Stop, Look, and Listen
Harnett County Schools officials’ decisions about the types of programs to offer were made only after careful consideration, research, and community input. If your district is thinking of adding programs, consider using the “Stop, Look, and Listen” method.
1. Stop to see where you are. Survey the landscape. What are families asking for? What do students need? Take time periodically to stop to evaluate current programming and determine whether it is meeting the needs of students and families.
2. Look at the data. This step includes data on both enrollment and academics. What are the data telling you? Which areas can your district improve, and how far are you willing to go to make those changes? Moving to an online school choice program that lets administrators track, manage, and analyze such data as enrollment, transfers, and lottery applications will go a long way toward helping identify trends and opportunities.
3. Listen to your stakeholders. They include the school board, parents, students, and your teachers, administrators, and staff members who are on the front lines, who know the trends and who will be doing the work. All those voices are critical, and their buy-in is needed to move forward with plans.
The Importance of Data
A critical part of the Stop, Look, and Listen strategy is getting and evaluating data. Data can help a district understand what students and families want from their school district.
In Harnett County, the district moved to an online system for enrollment and for managing its lottery system. The enrollment data have allowed administrators to easily track where new students are coming from and where students are going when they leave. Have they dropped out? Or have they transferred to another district? This information is especially important in a transient district and has helped inform the district’s programming, from dropout prevention to year-round schooling.
The district established a team that makes home visits. If data show that students have dropped out (versus transferring elsewhere), staff members visit them and try to determine why and what is needed to support those students and help them complete their education.
A top reason students drop out is because they feel their school doesn’t offer enough flexibility. Schools often have requirements that become barriers for students who work or have to take care of their family, which are among the more common reasons students drop out. Here is where options like the virtual academy or the alternative graduation program can help.
Having a system that tracks enrollment data also helped Harnett County Schools in its decision to offer the year-round school option. The population was growing by leaps and bounds in part of the county, and enrollment data showed that those families were transferring from a school district that offered several yearround programs. Parents were now asking for that same option in Harnett County.
Interest was also growing among military families. Although year-round school was something the district had considered in the past, it was never implemented because there was no demand at that time. Now, there is. Analyzing enrollment data and then asking those families what they wanted spurred the decision to move forward. The online lottery management system tracked how many students were applying and helped the district determine the number of seats to offer at the yearround school.
Academic data have also helped inform decisions. For example, Harnett County Schools offers a service in which students have access to 24-7 tutoring in multiple languages. When the district analyzed its academic data, it found that the four schools offering the tutoring program had some of the highest academic gains. So now it’s working on expanding the program to other schools. Analyzing academic data helps district leaders identify and understand trends and best practices.
Education Options for All
Adding new programs or revamping long-established structures will always have challenges. But if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that school systems need to be flexible. Being creative and taking time to stop, look, and listen—to students, parents, and teachers—can go a long way toward helping develop programs that will meet the needs of the families you serve. And if done correctly, the right mix of programs will also improve academics and help your district attract and retain students.
Education has no one-size-fits-all approach. But offering flexibility and multiple options—in both academic focus and from a scheduling standpoint—can help districts set students up for success.
Jermaine White is assistant superintendent, student support services, at Harnett County Schools in North Carolina.
Misty Reinhardt is the director of product management for Scribbles Software.