Elizabeth Aleman used to wait for report cards. She knew an A was a good thing and an F was bad. Rarely did she speak to her son’s teachers.
She didn’t know their language.
Two years ago, she started taking English language classes at Cross Keys High School, part of the school’s Parent Center offerings to help engage parents by breaking down communication barriers.
The effort to engage more parents is paying off big for the school, which saw its graduation rate jump to 73.8 — up 18 points over last year, a more than 30 percent increase.
“I can talk with the teachers of both my sons now,” said Aleman, who’s oldest is a junior at Cross Keys. “It has helped me so much.”
Cross Keys’ improvement is the third best in the state, behind Habersham Success Academy in Mt. Airy and Quitman County High School in Georgetown. But both are much smaller than Cross Keys. According to state figures, Habersham Success Academy and Quitman County High each have fewer than 100 students total. For 2016, Cross Keys’ graduating class alone was more than 200.
Cross Keys’ 18-point improvement came as the state’s graduation rate only moved slightly, up to 79.2 from 78.8 percent the previous year.
The DeKalb County School District’s graduation rate grew more than 10 percentage points between 2013 and 2015, but dipped slightly in 2016, down to 70.3 from 70.9. The progress at Cross Keys was a bright spot as the district continues to improve, Superintendent Steve Green said.
It “indicates what is possible when the school leadership, teachers and parents are on the same page with a commitment to the students,” he said.
Principal Jason Heard said when he began at the school in 2014, the graduation rate was high on his list of things to address.
“All our language centered around students graduating,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I brought parents into the process.”
One thing he knew immediately: The language wall between parents and teachers would have to fall.
At Cross Keys, 86 percent of the students are Hispanic or Latino. Most of those parents speak English as a second language, if at all.
Heard said he started inviting parents to the school for a monthly conversation. They would talk about their needs outside of the school, which pushed the school to address those needs. A parent resource center was established at Cross Keys to help provide resources to families, from career readiness counseling to the English classes.
He also shifted resources to help communicate with parents better. A Spanish-speaking secretary was put in the attendance office to better inform parents that students could fail after missing a certain number of unexcused days.
“Parents get resources on supporting their students, and for themselves,” he said. “If the parents are connected to the school, they will make sure students are connected as well.”
Maria Cisneros said the school’s parent center has allowed her to better understand how her children are doing and how to help should the need arise. She has one child at Cross Keys now, with another due to arrive as a freshman next year. Before the parent center, she depended on parent-teacher conferences to know how her children were doing. But she needed translation to fully understand.
“Sometimes yes. Sometimes no,” she said through a translator, noting sometimes a translator was not available to her during conferences. “I didn’t know if they were improving or not improving. I didn’t understand the report cards.”
Cisneros, now president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, said the school has afforded her the chance to participate in English classes and workshops where speakers explained parent rights in education as well as the importance of annual exams taken by students, which she could then discuss with her children.
She said the language barrier also affected how parents were treated at the school, deterring many from showing up.
“This school has improved a lot,” she said in English. “Everything has improved so much.”
Cross Keys High School’s graduation rate over the years
2012 - 51
2013 - 42.4
2014 - 47.2
2015 - 55.8
2016 - 73.8
Information from the Georgia Department of Education