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Leslie Lambert, standing, works with Ricki Smith in her honors English class at Liberty High School Wednesday.

Out of 118 high schools across the state, Raleigh County’s Liberty is the only one to be recognized as a School of Excellence by the West Virginia Department of Education.

Schools of Excellence must offer rigorous academic programs, have low dropout rates, high graduation rates and a supportive and learning-centered school environment.

Principal Clyde Stepp explained that attaining this prestigious award is the result of more than six years of focused and dedicated work on changing the school climate to encourage students to strive toward higher education.

When students believe attending college and attaining scholarships are within their grasp, academics and graduation rates improve, he said.

The past two years the school was deemed “exemplar” and “distinguished” the prior year. This year it was one of only three schools in the state qualified to be considered for the School of Excellence award.

Stepp and assistant principal Rocky Cangemi credits both small and large changes that have effected student success.

Stepp first noted a strong support system in place across Raleigh County Schools.

“Central office provides tools for us to use, like credit recovery. If a students fails a course, they can take it after school instead of over the summer or the next semester. This has had a major impact on decreasing dropout rates and increasing graduation rates,” he noted.

He also said that implementing College Summit has had a drastic effect.

Leslie Lambert, 10th-grade and College Summit teacher, said College Summit gets more and more students interested in post-secondary plans early on in their high school career.

It gives them a clear set of academic goals to target, she said.

Stepp explained the school has worked hard to change its students’ and its community’s mindset to encourage more college applicants.

“Between 46 and 52 percent of our students come from low socio-economic backgrounds. We focus on giving them the tools they need to make attending college happen,” he explained.

Sarah Milam, Algebra I teacher, said, “The culture here is unmatched. Many of our students are the first to graduate in their family with a high school diploma, much less a college degree. But it has been proven to them that they can go to college regardless of their background.”

Physical Education teacher Donald Barnett added, “I think one reason we got this award is because over the last several years there has been a complete buy-in by staff, administration, students and the community to build a college-going culture.”

Cangemi explained that small things like posting the teacher’s name and where they went to school and what their degree is helps build a college-going culture.

“It becomes a big topic of discussion. They can ask their teachers questions about school and start thinking about where they would like to go,” he said.

Stepp pointed out the LED school sign, which teachers raised more than $29,000 to purchase, is used to celebrate student achievements. As soon as students are accepted to college or attain another achievements, the community can read about it on the sign.

And Liberty offers the students a huge jump-start on their college education, offering seven dual credit class. Students have the chance to graduate with up to 21 college credit hours under their belt.

Last year, 41 percent of seniors went on to higher education and this year the rate is around 44 percent, Cangemi said.

Typically a school the size of Liberty has 10 to 18 graduates continue their education, but Liberty is seeing more than 40 students continue.

Eighteen students received Promise Scholarship this year and this graduating class will receive a total of $560,000 in scholarships over the next four years, said Stepp.

But it is not just pushing students toward higher education, it is about finding higher education that is a match for the students so they stay and succeed, whether it is a trade certificate, a small school or a large university.

“We want to continue to offer the educational opportunities that enable kids to go on to college” and the school climate is poised to continue to push students to achievement.

“We have students who are seeing their peers go to college and we are planting the seed early in 9th- and 10th-graders,” added Cangemi.

— E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com

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