Erica Brooks, a graduating senior at Overlea High School in Baltimore County, had a tough high school experience. She lost her dad as a freshman and she was forced to learn virtually her sophomore year because of the pandemic. But with the help of an academic resource center, she not only bounced back but finished her classes early. She’ll walk across the stage with her peers on Wednesday.

It was important to Monica Sample, the principal, to build relationships with the students this school year. It was the first time students were in the building full time since the pandemic. This year’s seniors were also the last class who experienced the entirety of the pandemic during high school. Sample knew that adjustment would be tough, but the school’s 8.5 percentage point increase in its graduation rate was a sign what they were doing was working.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to help our scholars move into the next phase in their lives and to know that we had a direct impact or hand in that,” Sample said.

Overlea was one of three Baltimore-area schools that saw spikes in graduation rates from 2021 to 2022, according to state data released in March. The high school boosted its share of students who graduated in four years from 70.8% in 2021 to 79.3% in 2022. Like many other schools, Overlea had seen its graduation rate dip and dropout rates increase when the pandemic hit.

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Randallstown High School, whose principal declined an interview, had a 10.6 percentage point increase in graduating students during the same years. Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore City, similarly, saw a 10.5 percentage point increase; school officials declined an interview and attributed the improvement to a return to in-person learning.

At Overlea, one thing that helped get students back on track to graduate was Baltimore County’s School Program for Acceleration and Recovery of Credit, also known as SPARC. It allows students to dual-enroll at the Community College of Baltimore County or take other courses outside of what the school offers.

Kids are usually picked for the program if they needed to recover a credit after failing a course. Overlea has a “project graduation” team, who’ve helped create plans for seniors who risked not graduating. Some were given mentors, others had conferences and some staff visited students’ homes to check in. And some enrolled in SPARC.

But Sample said the program has become so popular students requested to be in it for the independence of the self-paced coursework.

When Brooks first joined SPARC, it was overwhelming, she said. The work and expectations were too much, and she shut down. The 18-year-old described her high school experience as a roller coaster with fun and scary moments, including when the pandemic hit during her sophomore year.

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Erica Brooks poses for a portrait at Overlea High School in Baltimore County on Tuesday, May 31, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Virtual learning wasn’t for her.

“I was like, ‘I cannot learn from a computer,’” Brooks said.

But with the support of her mom, the motivation inspired by her dad and the help of the SPARC program, everything turned around. The accelerated credits she received allowed her to finish her classes in February. Now, she’s looking forward to going to cosmetology school to be a hair stylist.

The class of 2023 were freshmen when the pandemic hit. Some have struggled in the last couple years, and Sample said she and her staff worked to create strong relationships with the students, help their families stay engaged and return structure, routine and study habits back to students’ lives.

“We’re really trying to get back into what we would call the normal of things,” she said.

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Maryland’s four-year cohort graduation rate for the class of 2022 was 86.3%, down slightly from 87.2% in 2021. In Baltimore County, it was 84.5%, a 1.7 percentage point decrease from the prior year. However, Overlea went from 70.8% in 2021 to a 79.3% graduation rate in 2022. Graduation rates for the class of 2023 will not released until next school year.

Sample credits SPARC for the growth.

Craig Rollins, the lead teacher of the program, said he cleaned out the school’s tech room seven years ago to turn it into the SPARC room it is now. Positive reinforcement is plastered all over the walls. The “wall of fame” shows the named certificates of students who took the program. Students who finish can receive school merchandise, like T-shirts. They name students of the week, and the English teacher gives certificates to students who improve in reading.

“We also give them recognition for when they progress during the week,” Rollins said.

Craig Rollins, SPARC teacher at Overlea High School in Baltimore County, on Tuesday, May 31, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

SPARC is a self-paced environment at Overlea. Students grab their binders and do the classroom work at their own pace. It’s not a traditional classroom setting. The desks are round and the teachers in the classroom, like Rollins, are mostly there to coach, give feedback and help students set goals. The program is offered during school-day class periods, after school or on Saturday mornings.

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Brooks was the program’s “most improved” student and gave words of encouragement to ninth graders who school staff identified as being off track for promotion to 10th grade.

This school year, 87 students were in SPARC at Overlea. One of them was Kasim Washington, who said he liked how staff at SPARC worked around his schedule to avoid conflicts with football practice.

Washington said he’s built a strong bond with Rollins, who was the linebacker’s head football coach all four years and taught him how to deal with adversity.

“Those are like very crucial parts of your life,” he said. “So he was a very crucial role and like a role model to me.”

Kasim Washington poses for a portrait at Overlea High School in Baltimore County on Tuesday, May 31, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

After graduation, the 18-year-old is headed to Bowie State University on a football scholarship.

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“You can tell they genuinely care and want you to pass,” Washington said.

Sample said it excites her knowing those who struggled in school will walk across the graduation stage June 7.

“They want to graduate, they want to do well, and I just love the way our team members, our staff, pulled together,” Sample said.

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