MARSHALL, Texas – Marshall High School’s “Fast Track” early graduation program isn’t quite two years old and already the benefits are far beyond what even administrators Andy Chilcoat and Suzan Harrison could imagine when it kicked off in earnest at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year.
With a population of approximately 1,300 students, give or a take, in any given year, it is a statistical certainty that not all are willing and able to complete a traditional path to graduation. It’s why most high schools in Texas have some sort of early graduation opportunity for students, but that explanation doesn’t quite do justice for the program now in its second year at MHS. Fast Track is an accelerated graduation program at MHS exists for students who, for a variety of reasons, simply need to graduate school early.
“Marshall has always had an early graduation program of some sort, but that’s not really what we are doing with Fast Track,” said Harrison, a 30-year educator who has spent most of her career at MHS as senior counselor. “As a matter of fact, we try not to use the term ‘early graduation,’ as that’s more of a TEA (Texas Education Agency) deal. I would say that what makes Fast Track different is that the student becomes a non-traditional student, meaning that they basically come to school for a half day each day. Fast Track allows a student to still maintain an accelerated pace toward earning a diploma, while still being able to balance other things that come up away from school.”
Those other things include, for instance, family situations which require the student to work in support of the family, or unplanned pregnancies, or any other combination of factors which in the past would put the student in danger of becoming a dropout. Attendance problems or discipline or behavior issues also can lead to a student having the opportunity to enter the Fast Track program, which both MHS administrators say has achieved desired results in most of those cases.
“We have all different kinds of students,” said Chilcoat, in his second year as Associate Principal at MHS. “We have students that would like to enroll in the spring semester in college. We have some cases of students who are parents, unplanned parents, with young families, who have to provide for their families by working. They either have to work, or drop out of school. This program allows them to do both – they earn their diploma, which is best for them, and they still get to provide for their family.”
Harrison said that as of this week, there are 45 students enrolled in the Fast Track program this semester. Of those 45, 39 have already graduated. That is in addition to a total of about 70 that graduated in 2015-2016, the first full year of the program. A new batch of applicants to the program will enter the class in the spring semester.
Fast Track students attend school four hours a day and can enroll in one of two sessions. The morning session is from 8 a.m. – 12 p.m., and the afternoon session is from 12 p.m. – 4 p.m. The student spends the entire time in the classroom, completing coursework in the Fast Track curriculum provided by Plato Courseware, a standards-based online learning program which includes curriculum that challenges students by engaging them with interactive, media-rich content.
Harrison said MHS has used Plato for several years for credit recovery for students, and the software provides courses in a wide range of core subjects, electives and world languages, among others. Students take course-level assessments to ensure concept mastery.
“It allows them to work at their own pace,” said Chilcoat. “They have to go through tutorials on a subject. They have to take a mastery test. They have to do discussions, some projects, semester exams, midterm exams. It’s an approved curriculum through the state of Texas, and it allows them to do everything a traditional student does but just at an accelerated pace.”
MHS Fast Track instructors Lawrence Cisneroz and Alison McDonald are in the classroom with students, and are available to help them and provide instruction or clarification if needed. Harrison said that their role is critical to the success of the Fast Track program as the hands-on leaders in the classroom despite the fact that all instruction takes place online.
“Our teachers are our biggest asset,” she said. “They really, really care about these kids. Coach C and Miss McDonald…they are very territorial about their kids and that is good. I don’t know that this program could be as successful as it has been without them. We have the right teachers in that spot for sure.”
As non-traditional students in the program, Fast Track students are not allowed to participate in extra-curricular activities and cannot be on campus outside of their Fast Track class periods. However, Harrison does include them in senior activities such as prom, senior meetings, and other activities enjoyed by traditional students. The students are also allowed to walk with their graduating class during annual commencement ceremonies in Maverick Stadium.
Both Harrison and Chilcoat expect the program to have a positive effect on MHS’ overall dropout rate, although it is too early to tell in the program’s development just how much of an effect that will be. Dropout rates are measured from two years prior to the current year, so the batch of comparative data won’t be available until after this year at the earliest.
However, Chilcoat, who oversees attendance at MHS, can already see a positive upswing in attendance rates due to the Fast Track program.
“Dealing with attendance, as I go through our records and see kids who are having issues getting to and staying at school consistently, I refer them to this program,” Chilcoat said. “You have to look at the data and determine if these students can get the seat time required to get credit for their course. If not, we have to look at credit recovery or Fast Track. Once we get them in Fast Track, we have kids who had been missing school at an alarming rate suddenly here every day, working toward their diploma.”
“Almost every single kid…it’s just night and day compared to what they were doing before,” Harrison said. “Some of these kids may be considered ‘difficult,’ but this program at the very least supplies them with a high school diploma in their hands. They earn it. The perception is that it’s easy, but this is not easy. These kids work. The mindset of that class, led by Coach C and Miss McDonald, is that you’re going to get in there on the computer and you’re going to work. It just changes their entire perspective and can be really motivating.”
The rigorous schedule and curriculum can be so intense and fast-paced, in fact, that some students have actually decided to re-enter the traditional student population.
“I have one kid this semester who came to me and said he wanted to go back to regular classes in the spring,” Harrison said. “That’s the only kid I know of we’ve ever had to do that. (Fast Track) just isn’t for him. It’s because he doesn’t want to be on the computer all day, which is what this class requires. He wants the social life in high school, and all of that is okay and part of the high school experience. Ultimately, just as some kids need this quick, accelerated pace and path to a diploma, others want to experience something different. Fast Track is not for everyone.”
While both administrators are encouraged and pleased with the development and success of the program on paper, both say the true measure of its impact is in the success stories of the students who take advantage of the opportunity and, in most cases, get a new, fresh start.
“I hear from parents, grandparents, students, and they say thank you and tell us how they really appreciate this program,” Chilcoat said. “I had a kid with constant behavior issues, arrested multiple times, and his grandmother would call every day asking what we could do, what she could do, to get him on track. I could sit there and watch the student in my office, and he would take a math problem and maybe not the traditional or ‘right way of doing it, but he could find a way and come up with the correct answer every single time. He was a very smart kid, a very intelligent kid, and he knew the answer without touching or using a calculator. That kid is a high school graduate now. That kind of story, to see them do it themselves, to take control of their life and get that feeling of earning it, means a lot.”
Harrison, who has been a part of so many MHS seniors’ lives over the years, agrees that it is a special time when one of the Fast Track kids finishes and earns their degree.
“A lot of these kids just don’t want to sit in a class and do worksheets, or listen to a teacher lecture,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with that kind of instruction…I did that myself as a teacher for several years and it is effective for most students. But some kids, it’s just not for them. They need to get in there, get the job done, and then move on. This (Fast Track) just opens a lot of doors for some kids. Once they get that diploma, I sit down with them just like I do every senior and will help them learn how to fill out a FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and tell them about their opportunities. Whether they go that route or not, it’s up to them. But at the very least, they won’t be a dropout. They will at least have a diploma, and if we can get them there, we’ve done our part.”