The Students Know The Way To Success At Rahway High School

About 20 miles south of New York City, there’s a change happening, the kind of change that most often appears only in dreams and wild imaginations.

But at Rahway High School in New Jersey, the change is real and authentic, made possible by a group of teachers, administrators and advocates who dared to do more than just dream big; they made it happen.

Utilizing Academic Innovations’ Career Choices curriculum, Rahway High School righted the ship and, in doing so, possibly rescued generations of students from failure and unfulfilled potential.

At the heart of the school’s revival is principal John Farinella, who led a team that re-imagined education and then took the many steps necessary to revolutionize the way students on his campus learn. Rahway’s success is as much about a strong curriculum backed by passionate educators as it is about thorough, strong and smart planning.

You can’t plan today and execute tomorrow. Farinella spent a year getting ready.

"Our goal, our vision for Rahway High School, is to have every student prepared to enter college,” Farinella said. “We want students to be team players. We want them to be academically conscientious. We want them to be self-sufficient citizens. That is our goal."

The results so far are staggering. Before the program began in 2011-12, half of the freshman population was failing one or more classes. By 2014, the number had dropped by more than 20 percent. Suspension rates for freshmen fell from 10 percent to 5 percent.

The school in 2014-2015, offered 16 Advanced Placement classes, up from five in 2008.

In 2012, Rahway High School was recognized by New Jersey Monthly magazine as one of the “Top 10 Most Improved” high schools in New Jersey.

Research shows that early intervention among at-risk students makes a difference to high school dropout rates. About 1.2 million students drop out of high school annually. Two thirds of those students decide as early as their freshman year that they are going to drop out.

Many of the students at Rahway High School have not had traditional support and resources at home to help them with school academics.

About half of the 1,000 students at the school live below the poverty line and are eligible for free- and reduced-lunch. About half of the population is African-American, 25 percent are Hispanic and the rest are white.

“We have kids . . .  whose families are struggling,” Farinella said.

Farinella was inspired to launch a course using the Career Choices curriculum after attending an Academic Innovations seminar in 2009. The program is based on a program created by Dr. Rebecca Dedmond, director of the Freshman Transition Initiative at George Washington University and director of the Graduate Program of School Counseling at the Alexandria Center.

Farinella knew that the Freshman Transition Initiative would serve as a dramatic makeover of the school’s way of life. He didn’t just want to jump into it and fail. So he started to work with his colleagues at Rahway to establish a plan and a path to implement the program. In the fall of 2010, he identified teachers and curriculum writers and released them for one period per day for the entire year to work on the program.

Based on Dedmond’s work, Farinella navigated through a 10-step plan for success:

  1.  Gather your resources
  2.  Create a vision
  3.  Form a planning committee
  4.  Generate community buy-in
  5.  Identify curriculum
  6.  Recruit great teachers
  7.  Professional development
  8.  Make your Freshman Transition Initiative a school-wide effort
  9.  Share all students’ 10-year plans each year with their instructors
  10.  Recognize and celebrate

While ideas can be great, Farinella and those around him knew that the planning would need to be thorough. The Freshman Transition Initiative cannot be wedged into existing classes. Everyone on the campus has to be on board or at least open to the idea of change in curriculum.

“You have to find space in your school day to do this,” Farinella said.

Other steps were needed.

The school developed a partnership with the Princeton Center for Leadership in Princeton, New Jersey to write a grant that secured monies to purchase the Career Choices materials.

Farinella eventually launched a five-credit Freshman Seminar/Financial Literacy course that would fulfill a statewide graduation requirement in the area of financial literacy. All freshmen were enrolled in the course. The course was part of the broader Freshman Transition Initiative that focused on personal and social development, educational achievement plans, career and life skills planning, and the creation of a 10-year plan for success.

“It's about guiding kids, helping them to find out who they are, what they want and where they are going," Farinella said.

There is also broad support, input and interactivity among employees. Freshman Seminar teachers include teachers from physical education/ health, English, mathematics, science, social studies, world languages -- every department in the school.

Rahway has about 300 freshman students and 12 sections of the financial literacy course, which meets five days a week.

Farinella has some advice for other schools interested in making their similar Freshman Transition programs successful: Meet, collaborate and communicate.

“I strongly suggest you find a way to make sure there is dedicated time for you to have your teachers meet on a regular basis,” Farinella said. “It will make a world of difference.”

As a demonstration to its commitment to student success, Rahway has taken steps beyond the 10-step plan. Rahway partnered with Kean University in Union, New Jersey to allow junior and senior college interns to provide after school tutoring to Rahway High School students inside the Rahway High School library.

The school is also quick and proactive to intervene when necessary, holding individual parent conferences for all freshmen who begin to fail one or more classes.

In addition, the school encourages a student’s ability to enroll in pre-college summer programs in the summers after their 10th and 11th grade years, at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

“We are starting to think differently,” Farinella said. “Many kids did not ever think about going to college. They are now aspiring to go. Many kids are starting to believe in themselves in ways they have not done so before. My faculty is thinking differently.”

Farinella also wants other teachers, administrators and parents to know that the Freshman Transition curriculum is not just for at-risk students. Everyone benefits.

“Freshman transition is for all kids,” Farinella said. “Recently, we had a Rahway High School graduate accepted to Harvard University and as I listened to him speak about his experiences in high school it was clear to me that he would have benefited from the Freshman Transition experience that our students are now receiving at Rahway High School.”