High School Diplomas More Precious than Steel

The Sparrows Point High School graduation rate soared to more than 94 percent in 2013, but Principal Sam Wynkoop won’t be satisfied until every student graduates.



Sparrows Point juts out into the Chesapeake Bay on the southeastern tip of Baltimore County, Maryland. According to the Baltimore Sun, it was the site of the world’s most productive steel plant in the 1950’s, employing more than 30,000 people (Hopkins, 2013). However, shipyard and steelworker jobs declined significantly two decades later, and this anchor of the community closed for good in 2012.

Sparrows Point faced an identity crisis that will be familiar to close-knit company towns across the country. For generations, youth left high school at age 16 in pursuit of local, union-protected jobs in the skilled trades that did not require a diploma. Graduating from high school was not necessary for a successful future. For some, high school served as little more than a social outlet.

The changing economy has brought that pathway to an end. Preparing students for tomorrow’s workforce requires not only high school graduation but postsecondary education or training as well.

In the four years that Maryland has used a four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (2010 to 2013), Sparrows Point High has improved from 83.57 to 94.82 percent (Maryland State Department of Education, 2014). This represents more than double the average gains for other Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) high schools.

The school also moved from the 14th highest graduation rate in the county to the top five with a student body that is predominantly white (89 percent) and about one-third eligible for free and reduced-price meals (FARMS). Graduation rates for FARMS students, the largest subgroup, jumped from 80.33 percent in 2012 to 88.33 percent in 2013.

Principal Wynkoop’s Story

I travel 60 miles each way to be a part of this community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As proud as I am of our accomplishments, we certainly have a lot to learn and much more to do. This is the story of the progress we’ve made so far.

Toward a Graduation Culture

During my 11 years at Sparrows Point High, first as a teacher and now as principal, the community has come together around helping students graduate and move on to college and trade schools. It started with a culture shift to convey what students need for success in the future. On this foundation of buy-in from every adult in the school and community, we’ve layered proven strategies that prioritize relationships, college awareness, attendance, credit earning, and mentoring.

School-community partnerships were instrumental in making this transition. There is no shortage of local volunteers, financial support, and strong community presence at school events, from sports to plays.

Teachers took the initiative to build strong relationships with families inside and outside of school. Parents know they can casually reach out to teachers who live locally. Through committee work, teachers tackle extra duties such as school improvement and SAT prep as well as social activities. When interviewing prospective candidates, we’re looking for staff members who are willing to go above and beyond to get involved in students’ lives, a level of caring we find essential to ensuring that students graduate.

Geographically remote from much of Baltimore County, Sparrows Point High has a distinct advantage—we co-locate with our feeder middle school. Middle school students commute downstairs to become familiar with the high school faculty and administration as well as visiting classrooms. There’s nothing quite like a middle schooler’s first look at 12th grade physics. Younger students get the opportunity to see the cool big kids involved in challenging courses.

Secondary administrators and staff members build relationships across levels to set expectations from the time sixth graders step onto campus. We emphasize that the first 45 days of Grade 9 can predict outcomes four years later.

Three years ago, the middle and high schools agreed to share school colors and a mascot. Sparrows Point “Pointer pride” is one intangible that reinforces unity in a community where many parents and grandparents also attended these schools. Three-quarters of students are involved with extracurricular activities, and counselors make sure that students are aware of the breadth of options. Some of my favorite days are when alumni come back and sheepishly admit to staff that we were right to push him further than they could have dreamed.

A New Tradition – College-Going

It’s been a learning process. We started encouraging students to take advanced level coursework as well as broadening their awareness of possibilities for the future beyond Baltimore County.

As first-generation college goers, many students came from families unfamiliar with the college application process. While families are learning about college admissions on College Night and Scholarship Night, teachers also attend to serve as ongoing resources to students.

Financial aid was a major stumbling block for many students and their families. When you can start making money at a trade job right out of high school, college seems like a luxury. Local businesses rallied around families, raising more than $200,000 for scholarships in one year from politicians, veterans, businesses, and churches. That’s a strong message to students from their community about the importance of college.

School staff members also leveraged the counseling department and the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program to help students pay for college. The Sparrows Point High Class of 2014 reported over $4.6 million in scholarships earned (BCPS Office of School Counseling, 2014). The number of scholarship dollars has been growing each year.

Eligible students also offset future costs by earning college credits during the school day through College 4 Free—a partnership between BCPS and the Community College of Baltimore County. It’s an opportunity to earn up to a semester’s worth of college credits and become acclimated to college expectations. About 15 percent of the Class of 2014 took us up on this offer (BCPS Office of School Counseling, 2014).

Every Student, Every Day

Community engagement was only the beginning of the process. When we failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind many years ago, the link between attendance and graduation crystallized. Most students who were not graduating were demonstrating their lack of engagement with inconsistent attendance.

Our attendance committee was launched in 2005 to set schoolwide AYP goals, closely monitor individual students, reach out to families, and create popular incentives that celebrate attendance. This interdisciplinary group brings together the principal, an assistant principal, counselors, a nurse, the pupil personnel worker (school-family liaison), and special education staff members. One set of prizes for high attendance was signed memorabilia from the Baltimore Ravens.

A related layer of strategies is good old-fashioned detective work. The mathematical reality at a small school is that every student in the cohort factors mightily into the school’s graduation rate.

We’ve ramped up our ability to track each student and reach out to those who are not attending school. I conduct home visits along with counselors, an assistant principal, and the pupil personnel worker. We ask peers for information on where absent students might be. If found locally, we try to persuade them to come back or offer alternatives. In the Class of 2014 (fall 2010 cohort), six students did not graduate. Of those, we were not able to find four.

Priority Attention

Targeted interventions have made a huge difference. With grant funding from Maryland’s Tomorrow, the school hired a counselor to address the needs of eighth graders who were not on track to graduate due to academics or attendance. A study skills course was developed to provide more time for college and career planning. Though the grant ended in 2012, we’ve continued this crucial program by reallocating funds. We’re kicking off those first 45 days of high school before students even start 9th grade.

Maryland Safe and Supportive Schools (MDS3) is a second instrumental grant program that is continuing as a committee without funding to target student social and behavioral needs. Whereas they once earned a stipend, teachers now volunteer to mentor at-risk students using programs such as Check & Connect. The teachers stuck with it because it works, plain and simple. I cannot stress how fruitful these relationships are in helping students graduate.

Less formally, I’ll use early fall staff meetings to announce which seniors are at risk of not graduating, and teachers volunteer to work directly with them. The result is a building full of adults who care so much for kids. Our philosophy: be interested in who they are so they’re interested in where they are.

The school system has been an incredible partner. It used to be that students needing to make up credits had to travel to other schools for credit recovery. This was a major obstacle. One of BCPS Superintendent S. Dallas Dance’s first priorities as he began his tenure in 2012 was addressing the graduation rate. Since then, we’ve been able to provide online credit recovery at Sparrows Point High as well as course packets for independent student work, both guided by instructors. Having these options on site at a school as out-of-the-way as ours is a true blessing.

 Sustaining Progress

Six teachers were new to Sparrows Point in the 2014-2015 school year. All transferred from within the district and were chosen based on fit with the school’s philosophy—the right people in the right places. Our new staff members provide the opportunity to infuse new ideas into our practices and to combat hitting a plateau.

Our focus will continue to be early intervention. We’re spending more time preparing students to excel on state graduation tests, in Advanced Placement courses, and on the SAT to ensure that our graduates are ready for education and training beyond high school.

After strengthening the middle to high school transition with attention to Grade 8, we’re reaching back to sixth graders. Remember that philosophy about the first 45 days of Grade 9? We feel the same way about getting sixth graders off to a great start toward attendance and course completion. One part is supporting Grade 6 students who are demonstrating risk factors. Another is strengthening our vertical teams from Grade 6 to 12 to ensure that secondary instruction is aligned in terms of expectations and rigor.

We’re building awareness and excitement by giving high school tours to kindergarteners from the feeder elementary school across the street. Younger students look up to their older peers, so we’re expanding our definition of mentors to include high school student leaders.

Early intervention also includes access to credit recovery. We’re trying to prevent unmanageable course loads senior year. Grade 9 and 10 students who are struggling to complete credits need opportunities to do so early on and set the stage for a successful senior year.

When I look back on the past 11 years, I’ve seen the staff and community of Sparrows Point High take bite-sized, calculated chunks out of graduating more students. Teachers and staff have driven these efforts with true dedication and commitment. We see a challenge, and we meet it by addressing root causes.

I want a 100% graduation rate, and we’ll keep layering efforts with Pointer pride until we get there.

Sam Wynkoop began teaching at Sparrows Point High School in 2003, where he also served as science department chair and magnet program chair. In 2006, he was appointed assistant principal, and he became principal in 2012. Alyssa Alston is senior research writer for Baltimore County Public Schools.


BCPS Office of School Counseling. (2014). Senior survey results. Internal communication.

Hopkins, J.S. (2013, June 9). Sparrows Point: A year after collapse, unsettled lives. Baltimore, MD: The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://data.baltimoresun.com/stories/sparrows-point-a-year-after-bankruptcy-unsettled-lives.

Maryland State Department of Education. (2014). Baltimore County – Sparrows Point High. Data from Demographics Data Summary and Graduation Data Summary. Baltimore, MD: Maryland State Department of Education. Retrieved from http://mdreportcard.org/Entity.aspx?K=031573.

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