September 23, 2014

How Pike High School Turned Things Around By Demanding More

courtesy Pike Township Schools

courtesy Pike Township Schools

Sitting in his office, Pike Principal Troy Inman rattles of a list of awards the school has received over the past few years.

To Inman and the Pike Community, these awards are more than just plaques and talking points.  They are validation that raising expectations is working.

Pike wasn’t always such a well-oiled machine. Inman has been with the district for 20 years, and when he took over as Principal seven years ago, hallway fights, tardiness, and negative press weren’t uncommon. So, he implemented a policy: students need to be in class by the time the bell rings or they don’t attend.

"Getting to school and getting to class has to be a priority. You've got to be ready to learn," Inman said. "We had to change the culture to 'hey, this is a professional learning community for everyone.' The staff, the students the parents have really bought in to what we're trying to do."

Inman says the rule allows teachers to focus on teaching and students to focus on learning, distractions are limited. And with one less thing to worry about, teachers are able to focus more on building relationships with students.

Science and technology Chairman Gary Cooper says as relationships improve so do student attitudes towards learning.

"We get kids to understand that we care about them and their success," Cooper said. "If you can convince them that you care about them they will do anything. Then, the rest of it is just instruction."

Addressing behavior and demanding student accountability was the catalyst that led to shift in culture. Seven years ago, the graduation rate at Pike was 75 percent, now it’s 93 percent and almost half of last year’s graduating class had some college credit. 

"I think for some of the kids, being here helps them escape from their home life. This is where kids can be themselves, " said Danielle Vohland, a 1996 graduate of Pike and current director of the International Baccalaureate Advance Placement Dual Credit coordinator. 

About 60 percent of the student body lives in poverty, but she says Pike has created a culture of flexibility, especially for those whose home life is stressful.

She recalled a student who was helping his parents at their resaturant, and then helping his siblings with their homework. By the time he got their homework done and got them to bed, it was too late for him to do his work. 

"We as teachers would work with the kids, see what's was going on, and how we could help them do both," Vohland said.

And students buy into what the teachers are saying because, as seniors Lindsey Wilkerson and Larry Gray explain, the outreach feels genuine.

"Once the teacher makes you feel comfortable, it makes you feel open to the rest of the class," Wilkerson said. "The class feels comfortable to talk with one another as well as the teacher." 

"Because the teachers are so involved and they let you know it's ok to make mistakes and all that," Gray said, "you just take what you learned from Pike and you take it home and apply it there."

But, Pike needed resources to power its cultural change. 

The school administration turned to grants as a way to bolster the budget. Over the past 12 years, the district has received about $30 million in grants. Inman says the school has been able to sustain programs created from grants because it keeps the ones that work and dumps the ones that don’t.

"It took us a long time to find out what our students really need," Inman said. "...We try to make sure that that money going in is going to help students, or help teachers teach better."

Some of those investments include after school tutoring, college preparedness, and Pike Prep - an alternative program that helps students who’ve fallen behind on their credits to catch up. 

The grant money also has been used to foster relationships with the business community allowing students to draw on the expertise of leaders at organizations such as Dow, Eli Lilly, and Rolls Royce.

United States Labor Secretary Tom Perez toured Pike earlier this month and says it serves as a model for other schools around the country.

"This place is a testament to the notion that every person in this state and every child in this country is gifted and talented," Perez said. "And if you figure out the right ways to draw out those gifts and talents everybody gets to punch their ticket to the middle class."

Pike is now focused on increasing its International Baccalaureate graduates and upping enrollment in advanced placement classes. 

And as Inman describes, for school that once had trouble getting kids into the classroom, it now can’t keep them away.

"They want to be here at Pike High School. It never really closes," Inman said. "With our tutoring programs, and with the performing arts and our athletics there's kids here 24-7 it seems like."

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