The number of Madras High School freshmen who are on-track to graduate has taken a significant jump in the last two years.
"Freshmen on-track is an important statistic, because it's a predictor of the success of kids graduating. If freshmen are on track, they are 80 percent more likely to graduate," said Principal Mark Neffendorf.
To be on-track, freshmen need to have earned at least six credits by the end of their ninth-grade year, or a quarter of the credits needed to receive a diploma.
The improvement coincides with the arrival of Neffendorf and Assistant Principal H.D. Weddel in 2015-16, and the emphasis they put on making students feel welcome.
When the administrators arrived, just 50 percent of freshmen were on-track. "After the first year we were here, it jumped to 78 percent, and by the end of last year it was 82 percent on-track," Neffendorf said.
"Our goal was to graduate at least 80 percent of our kids, and hopefully graduate more," he said.
They were even more pleased when they checked on the 2015-16 freshmen class, which was 78 percent on-track, and learned that the students were still 78 percent on-track their sophomore year.
Neffendorf and Weddel focused the staff on building relationships with students, which in turn helped build trust.
"We concentrated on targeting those students who were struggling in school, and had other issues. We made sure the teachers showed real interest, and the administrative staff spent a lot of time building trust," Neffendorf said.
Along with Assistant Principal Nate Tyler, Neffendorf and Weddel could regularly be seen in the school hallways greeting students and calling them by name.
"Each of us three administrators called (the struggling students) into the office a lot for a progress check, because we wanted them to know we cared," he said, adding the teachers spent the most time connecting with students.
Neffendorf said the idea is really simple and everybody knows what to do. "It's just how do you do it? We invested the time to do it; other things in our jobs were put on the back burner," he emphasized.
In building relationships, his hope is that students develop a deep enough trust that they can share with staff what their obstacles are. "That's what really starts helping them do better in school -- it gives them hope," he observed.
The second thing they did was to lay out their expectations for students.
The expectations included working on studies, being respectful, getting along with others, going to class. "If those things don't happen, we stay on kids and enforce behavior," he said.
If teachers and administrators don't have high expectations, students won't live up to them. "We've really been impressed with the kids here and how they've responded to the expectations," Neffendorf said.