How Do You Spell Success? GMSSC
By: Michelle Brown
Poverty. Teen pregnancy. Eating disorders. Drug addiction. Broken homes. Hunger. Parent job-loss. Homelessness. Abusive relationships. Abandonment. Immigration.
These are not some of the typical causes first thought of when considering low grade point averages and the failure to graduate high school.
Yet, when asked, students of Marietta High School pinpoint these very tragedies and circumstances as some of the deterrents they face to making the grade and successfully graduating.
And that’s what Leigh Colburn discovered. Approached by then Marietta City School Superintendent in 2015, Emily Lembeck and the Board of Education, Colburn was challenged – What could we do to increase the graduation rate from 75% to 100%? As Principal of Marietta High School, Colburn was on a mission – to find answers.
Many teachers, administrators, and educators have set out to remedy failing test scores, low grade point averages and dwindling graduation rates by tackling the issues with traditional data driven approaches – remediation, tutoring, practice testing, and even the focus on improving teacher/administrator performance. All well-meaning and good, and these approaches may work for some struggling students and schools systems, but what Marietta High School found is while some data-driven solutions work to some degree, not all barriers to graduation stem from in-school academically focused issues.
For some of these Marietta High School students, all the tutoring in the world could not take away the anxiety, fear, and emotional weight carried by these young men and women caused by the stressful issues they face on a daily basis. How can a homeless student focus on passing a test if they are worried where they will sleep that night? How can a student do homework successfully if they have to take on an after school job to make ends meet and put food on the table, because a parent has lost a job or does not make enough alone to financially care for the family?
With a simple questionnaire, Colburn and her colleagues asked the question of their student body – “What has been your greatest barrier to your graduation?”
What Colburn and her team found was the truth – the voice of students. “Our students were willing to share what was going on in their lives, and they had real ideas about how we could help or do things differently,” Colburn said.
We can all agree education is the opportunity of a lifetime – affording us the freedom to make positive choices and the ability to guide us down paths of success. But what happens when a student’s family and home life conditions are seemingly impossible to overcome? When students face trauma and begin to emotionally and physically spiral downward, how is academic success and even graduation possible?
Some of today’s students face many challenges in life that most adults never have to experience. Too often these young people also face these challenges without the support of a parent, or the resources to push through these road-blocks and get on track to finish high school helping to launch them into college and good career choices.
The answers that came from the student questionnaires fueled Leigh Colburn’s desire to help. Colburn and her staff learned that students who graduated and those that didn’t were often facing individual versions of the same barriers, but two differences between those who graduated and those who dropped out of high school was an access to services and resources and one powerful internal asset – resilience, defined as one’s sense of hope, worth, belonging, and purpose. Colburn then asked what could Marietta High School do to boost access to services and resilience in their students? So much more, was their answer!
Colburn recognized, “The solution to what ails public schools is in our communities – our citizens, our non-profits, our service based community groups, and our faith based organizations.”
Seeing student needs and reaching beyond the mainstream solutions for academic growth, Colburn resigned as Principal in June of 2015. Colburn, with support from her staff, the Marietta School Superintendent, local businesses and community organizations gave birth to Graduate Marietta Student Success Center (GMSSC) which opened in October, 2015.
Many local communities have resources available, but Colburn notes students and their families do not necessarily know how to reach out and receive the help they desperately need. Colburn and the GMSSC bolstered the initiative started by Communities in Schools, and decided to reach out to local businesses, charities, and government agencies already engaged in meeting the community’s needs. These organizations were all too eager to listen and provide the on-site expertise, staff, and resources needed by the GMSSC.
“GMSSC provides a place for kids to process their experiences and then with the help of trained professionals and caring adults, work through issues and learn there are people they can trust to help them” Colburn shared.
Current Marietta Schools Superintendent, Dr. Grant Rivera offers his full backing and gratitude of those in the Marietta community, “The Marietta Success Center is an example of what happens when an entire community unifies behind one common purpose: supporting every need of every child. Through the vision cast by our Board and support of our partners, the Center is addressing the many real-world barriers to academic success so every student is successful in both college and their careers.”
Three distinctive arms of the GMSSC are the Center for Academic Support, the Center for Behavioral Support, and the Center for Community Partnerships – Counseling and Family Support. Each provides the necessary support to meet specific needs of students.
The Center for Academic Support engages in college and career readiness with technologically advanced programs like YouScience, an innovative personalized testing tool providing comprehensive insights of students’ abilities and how they impact their potential for career planning, helping them communicate effectively for job readiness. Other supports provided in this academically focused center include writing labs, tutoring services, computer labs, mentoring programs and test prep, and many more. Organizations that provide support are Rotary, Marietta Mentoring for Leadership, neighboring colleges and universities, AT&T, Communities in Schools, and the center utilizes retired teachers as tutors.
Seeing the need to assist students with social and developmental challenges, the Center for Behavioral Support provides a wide spectrum of intervention services including anger management, peer and teacher/student mediation and conflict resolution, as well as wellness and nutrition counseling, job skills assistance and social media management. Organizations include NorthStar Psychological Services, BOSS United, Inc., Cobb/Douglas Community Services Board, and the Juvenile Court of Cobb County.
With the startling transiency, addiction, and abuse rates that plague our society, so much more can be done for our youth. The GMSSC Center for Community Partnerships – Counseling and Family Support provides much needed solutions for the deeper issues kids face. The center offers counseling for many issues: eating disorders, grief, depression, sexual abuse, self-harm and suicide prevention, mental health, gang resistance, substance abuse, divorce and family changes, and the list goes on. The center also houses a clothing closet, as well as, a food pantry stocked by MUST Ministries and partially funded by Marietta Kiwanis Club. YoungLife leads a teen pregnancy support group, along with daily onsite social workers, as well as, staff members from liveSAFE Resources, the Department of Human Services, and more who all take part in this effort to bring aid to Marietta High School students and families.
LaAmistad provides English as a Second Language for parents, and there is a café to feed students. Marietta High School’s “Chill Room” is a place students know they can go for peer and adult support and counseling. It provides a safe atmosphere for teens to meet and find solutions.
“It’s amazing to watch kids transition – failing grades and hopeless outlooks can improve, environments can stabilize, and struggling students can envision a positive future,” shares Colburn. The impact of GMSSC is being heard around Georgia and the nation as other schools and communities have been admiring the work done here. Colburn has been invited to share the GMSSC story, and the work of the center is sparking interest and the desire to change communities outside Marietta.
Many Georgia schools work with the successful organization Communities In Schools, and others are researching the possibilities of forming their own relationships while partnering with local organizations to meet the needs of their students like that of GMSSC.
Through the brilliant approach of partnering with community agencies and organizations, as well as, faith-based organizations and private citizens, GMSSC has grown from an original investment of $50k in charter funding to $1.6 million in services rendered, and only about 20% of this total comes from the local school budget. Only the Academic Services are supported through local, state, and federal dollars, the rest of the services are provided at no cost to the state,” says Colburn. Colburn’s salary was the only new salary and four other current positions were absorbed into the creation of the center. Ten other staff members are provided by other organizations and agencies.
Inspired by the GMSSC program, Georgia State Representative Sam Teasley, a member of the House Education Committee states, “I simply could not be more excited about the work of the Marietta Student Success Center, or more proud of Leigh Colburn and the whole team that makes it possible. This program is making a difference in our community by being responsive to the needs of students, and engaging businesses, citizens and community leaders in that work. This is a truly innovative effort that could be a model for communities all over Georgia!”
One Marietta High School student sums up her appreciation, saying that her school represents not only academic education, but also “a place of hope and safety in times of need or crisis.”
Bringing the community into the school to meet academic solutions may seem unconventional to some, but seeing how well students are responding to the help, is a clear indication of its successful impact.
Although Marietta High School’s graduation rates have not yet risen to 100%, Leigh Colburn along with the entire Marietta community are hopeful these numbers will continue to rise as students find ease in knowing they are not alone in life.
The Graduate Marietta! Student Success Center is providing its students with the promised reward of the freedom to follow your dreams and the opportunity that America promises for all!
As we were putting the final touches on this column Director Colburn made the decision to retire from her position at the center to focus on fundraising for the GMSCC and expanding the program on a statewide and national basis. She will be working on a volunteer basis with the Marietta Schools Foundation to continue program development, community partner engagement, and fundraising. Additionally and privately, Colburn will be spearheading The Centergy Project–a Student Wraparound Initiative to guide other school districts in the creation of their own centers.
Her retirement letter to the board read in part as follows…
“Working in close partnership with Marietta City Schools and the Marietta Schools Foundation, I’ve decided to focus on the fundraising, partner engagement, and external consultancy roles and retire as Director of the Center on June 30th. Marietta City Schools will hire a new director to manage the day-to-day operations of the Center and exclusively focus on serving our students and families. I am excited for this opportunity to showcase the great work of this community to other schools and districts, support the Foundation in its mission, and simultaneously raise funds for the Center.”
With this move, Marietta will keep its champion for student voice while Georgia gains a new leader in innovation—that’s what we call a Win-Win!
For information on the GMSCC, go to www.mariettasuccess.center or contact Colburn at email@example.com.
If you’re interested in starting a student center in your school district, contact Colburn at firstname.lastname@example.org.