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The City Journals

Graduation rates up, failing grades down due to targeted credit recovery program

Jul 16, 2021 10:48AM ● By Jet Burnham

Jamie James from the UMLA Board awards Principal Dixie Garrison with the prestigious Peggy Lee Rowland Award in front of her colleagues. (Photo courtesy of Dixie Garrison.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

The number of West Jordan Middle School students entering high school with credit deficits has decreased almost 90% in the past seven years.

What happened seven years ago that had such an effect was that Dixie Garrison became principal at West Jordan Middle School.

“Her priority is not to ‘run a school’ but to make West Jordan Middle School a community where both students and staff can thrive,” said Jeanette Gudgell, a member of WJMS’s Community Council. “She promotes empathy, encourages those who are struggling both academically and socially, and celebrates the successes of students and staff. One of the things I think is most impressive is that she lets the students know she loves them on a daily basis.”

With a passion for education, Garrison encourages her staff to implement any idea that supports students. WJMS has a robust afterschool program and cultural support groups such as Latinos in Action, Polynesian Crew and the Empathy Project.

To address the failing grades, the WJMS staff developed a credit recovery plan, called Platinum Pride Time, that eliminates the need for summer school and credit recovery packets, which are seldom successful with students who have lost motivation.

“Other schools might have credit recovery programs but not to the extent that we do it; I don't know of any other school that does what we do,” school counselor Wendy Petrovich said.

School counselors run the program, working one-on-one or in small groups with students during the school day to complete the work needed to pass their classes. The year before Platinum Pride Time was created, the freshman class had a total of 445 failing grades. After the program was implemented, there were only 164. Just a few years later, that number was down to 50.

Complications due to the pandemic caused an increase in failing grades last year and this school year, so the Platinum Pride Time program was expanded to a full class period. Students who had failed a class were transferred out of an elective class during the final quarter of the year to work on credit recovery with tutors and specialists Garrison hired for the class. Once they got caught up, students could resume their elective class, which was an effective motivator for them.

Petrovich said it is critical to get students’ credits up to date before they enter high school, because if they start high school already behind, it’s easier for them to give up on graduating. She said Platinum Pride Time sets up a pattern of success.

“They'll go to high school with all their required credits,” Petrovich said. “They'll have a fresh start and hopefully be in the habit of passing classes there. We want the kids to go to the high school full of hope and with their dreams that they can graduate, which determines how easy the rest of their life will be for them. If they can just graduate high school, they're much more likely to be successful in their future.”

The numbers show the effects of Platinum Pride Time follow students all the way to graduation. In 2012, the West Jordan High School graduation rate was 77%. When the first group of ninth graders who had participated in Platinum Pride Time graduated three years later, that rate jumped up to 84%.

“That's unheard of to happen over a period of a year,” Garrison said. “It happened because it was systemic from the ninth grade on. If they hadn't gotten the start they had with us in ninth grade, they wouldn't have been on track.” WJHS graduation rates have continued to rise, maintaining around 95% for the past few years. 

Garrison said the Platinum Pride Time credit recovery program is successful because it is not punitive and because teachers and counselors who genuinely care about their students run and support it.

“I am very fortunate to have caring dedicated counselors who want to see these kids succeed and are willing to get in the trenches,” Garrison said.

Petrovich said, because Garrison has created a school culture which is centered around what is best for students, staff members are willing to put in extra time and effort.

“We do it because it works,” Petrovich said. “Everybody here can see that we are making a difference. I fully believe our teachers work harder than any other school because everything about this school is about ‘how can we do more?’ I think that totally comes from Dixie. She has brought in all these programs and made it the school it is.”

Determined not to lose the relationships and progress they’ve made with their students, Garrison and her staff even decided to teach both online and in-person classes this year—the only school in Jordan District to do so. Garrison made sure all students had access to wi-fi and when they didn’t show up to classes, went to students’ homes to clear up misinformation and resolve concerns.

“We've done a lot of knocking on doors and home visits and trying to find lost kids,” Garrison said. “We invited kids to come back to school, and we've had a handful of success stories.”

Garrison has advocated for students and teachers on a local and national level and done what many middle schools have been unable to do.

 “The climate at West Jordan Middle School has undergone a truly amazing transformation under Dixie’s leadership,” Gudgell said. “Dixie led the way as WJMS transitioned from a school where academic and behavioral expectations were low to becoming a National School To Watch.”

Garrison was honored this spring by the Utah Middle Level Association with the Peggy Lee Rowland Award for demonstrating a high level of service, integrity and leadership in middle level education and pursuing opportunities to bring success to middle school students. 

Garrison was surprised to get this rare lifetime achievement award after only 22 years in education (17 in administration) while still in the middle of her career. She was especially touched that her staff gave her a standing ovation when she was presented the award.

“I worry that my teachers might be pushed past the brink,” she said. “And so to have them nominate me and recognize me and give me that standing ovation—that was just priceless. It made me feel really good that the work that we've done here, and what I've pushed for and what I believe in, that I have a team that recognizes that I've also sacrificed, too, that I've put a lot of my heart and soul and extra time and commitment to what we do here as a school, as well.”