The percentage of students at Washington, D.C., public schools who graduate from high school in four years is at an all-time high. But at 69 percent, the district’s graduation rate is well below the national average, which is north of 80 percent.
So in a move that mirrors a broader national conversation about how to help kids who have more than a few obstacles in front of them succeed, the district this year put what it’s calling “pathway coordinators” into its schools to make sure kids at risk of dropping out get a diploma—and to help students who’ve gotten off track rebound.
Through a mixture of number-crunching, mentoring, and occasionally good-natured cajoling, these pathways coordinators track how students are doing and help those who are behind come up with plans for moving forward. Right now, the district has about 1,300 students it categorizes as overage and under-credited, meaning students who are under the age of 24 and more than two years behind. The ultimate goal is to get as many kids as possible through high school in four years and to help even those who need a little longer earn a diploma and move into either higher education or the workforce.
Angelo Hernandez—or “H,” as some of the kids call him—is the guy who oversees the pathways program at Wilson High School in a quiet part of the city five miles northwest of downtown. The school has the highest graduation rate—88 percent—of non-application schools in the city, but around 400 of the school’s 1,800 kids are under-credited—and around 85 of those students are both older than 18 and behind. Hernandez estimates that about 35 seniors need to make up at least three or four classes, meaning there’s plenty of work to do.
Hernandez, who’s been at the school for eight years but moved into the new role in August, knows a thing or two about struggling to get through high school. He was raised by a single mom in Philadelphia in a three-bedroom home that at various points housed as many as 10 people. He walked miles to school as a kid, and there was barely enough money for clothes sometimes; forget extracurricular activities. “It was very rough,” he recalled during an interview at his office. He was a popular athlete, but not always focused on studying, and it took him a couple extra months after his senior year technically ended to earn all the credits he needed to graduate. The day he picked up his diploma, his mom passed away. “Hearing it,” he said, “people say ‘How did you make it?’”
Hernandez “made it” with the help of coaches and teachers and a sheer unwillingness to give up, and now that experience puts him in a position to say to the kids who come through his office, “I was just like you,” he said. While his day-to-day job varies, he’s essentially the glue that keeps kids, teachers, and counselors connected and on the same page.
His mornings usually start with numbers—looking at the data teachers submit and figuring out which kids are failing a course or close to it and might need after-school classes to catch up, or going over attendance records to see who’s skipping school. Then comes the detective work. “The home life is really what I focus on,” Hernandez said. And he’s not above stopping by a student’s house to figure out what’s going on. Some kids don’t have enough to eat, or even someplace to sleep. Others are taking care of younger brothers and sisters, or working after school to help pay the bills. Many don’t have high hopes for what school has to offer. “They felt like they weren’t getting any attention,” he said.
Lauren Caldwell is a senior at Wilson who can frequently be found hanging out in Hernandez’s office. The two met when she was a freshman and he was working as the school’s ninth-grade dean, basically the person in charge of disciplining freshmen. Now, Caldwell manages the basketball team, which he coaches. While she generally likes her classes and teachers, Caldwell isn’t convinced that all of her instructors really care about their students’ lives. But Hernandez, who busied himself with something in the hall while we talked in his office, is different. “He’s not judging me,” she said, adding that “H” is a good listener and that she can tell he’s not out to hurt her, even when they disagree on something.
Brianae Barkley, Caldwell’s friend, agrees. “A lot of people feel like teachers don’t help them or they’re not for them,” she said. And it “seems fake” when teachers act like they care in class but then don’t say hello in the halls, she added. But she knows Hernandez cares about her. After a fight with a teacher when she was a freshman, Hernandez paid her a visit at track practice, where they talked and “got closer.” When she fell behind in science, he worked with her on a plan to catch up. “The consistency thing is key,” Hernandez said later. “Once they see you’re invested, they start to be invested, too.”