By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The principal of Cherokee High School recently hit the pinnacle of educational achievement, but she is by no means finished with her education and learning. Debora Foerst defended her disquisition successfully on Wednesday, March 21 and will have her doctorate in education (EdD) degree conferred upon her from Western Carolina University in May.
“A disquisition is a little different than a dissertation because it’s an action research where we address a problem of practice within our own settings and then study it,” she noted. “I want to give a shout out to my students, staff, and co-workers at Cherokee High School. I’ve had nothing but encouragement the entire way. I feel so supported. It’s been heartwarming.”
Foerst’s disquisition research focused on chronic absenteeism. She worked with Wendy Hannah, Valley Springs Middle School assistant principal, on the project. Collaboration with peers is encouraged through a program called NIC (Networked Improvement Communities).
“You can do more together than you can do by yourself,” said Foerst who started the program in 2015. She said that originally, they looked at graduate rates and dropout rates and how to improve both, but eventually moved into looking specifically at chronic absenteeism.
“Chronic absenteeism is something that is often overlooked, and it is something that definitely leads to dropping out or possibly not graduating on time,” she noted. “Absenteeism is an issue that we struggle with here, and chronic absenteeism is defined as when a student is absent 10 percent or more of the school year.”
She said it is important to look beyond general statistics when dealing with chronic absenteeism. Foerst looked at this year’s Cherokee High School ninth graders. “Last year, as a cohort, their attendance rate was over 90 percent, but what that hid was that there were 27 of them who were chronically absent. So that average, that mean, can hide that. You have to break it down and really look at it. So, 27 of those students were chronically-absent, and of those 11 were chronically-absent the year before.”
Chronic absenteeism includes both excused and unexcused absences. Foerst said that the Department of Education has previously encouraged schools to only look at truancy (unexcused absences). “But, when they’re missing, it doesn’t matter if it is excused or not. It doesn’t matter why they’re missing when you look at the fact that they’re missing class. They’re missing the lecturing. They’re missing the activities.”
Foerst said it is important to squelch the behavior early as it can affect not only performance in high school but also beyond. “If they have developed this chronic absenteeism habit, then it’s hard to get that turned out. So, what we wanted to do was get it turned around now.”
To achieve that goal, she and Hannah developed a mentor program for ninth graders that they implemented at their respective schools. “We started it as a pilot program with just a few students and staff members who agreed to serve as mentors. Then, we followed the student’s behavior, attendance, and academic performance throughout the process of the mentoring program. It’s still going here. The mentoring program is still going, and we hope to continue it, sustain it, and expand it to other grades.”
Due to the mentoring program, all of the areas they looked at improved said Foerst. “We didn’t see improvement in every single student, which was disappointing because we had hoped that all students would improve, but as a whole, the attendance rates increased, academic performance increased, and behavioral referrals decreased.”
A lifelong resident of the Qualla Boundary and a graduate of Cherokee High School, Foerst has dedicated her life to the education of Cherokee youth. Following high school, she earned an associate’s degree of applied science in business administration from Haywood Community College, a bachelor’s of science degree in english education from Western Carolina University, a master’s of arts degree in English from Western Carolina University, a Gifted and Talented Add-On Certification from the University of Virginia, and a Post Masters Licensure in Educational Leadership from Western Carolina University.
Foerst said she was glad that she started her post-high school educational pursuits at a community college. “Coming from a small school and small town and going to a larger university, it’s not easy, and the community college was a really good step for me and it helped me to transition between high school and the university.”
Having served as principal at Cherokee High School since 2014, she began her tenure at the school in 2000 when she served as the GEAR UP coordinator. The following year, she moved into the classroom to teach language arts at Cherokee Middle, and in 2007, she moved to the high school where she taught English II, English III, Journalism, and Publications.
Foerst encourages everyone to keep learning and follow educational pursuits. “Not only does it help us in our jobs, it helps us become better employees. I feel like I’m a better principal because I went through this program. But, it also makes us better people because it expands our scope and it expands our minds.”
She related she will never be finished with her education. “I know my family is all worried about what degree I’m going to find next. I firmly believe in never stop learning. I love education or I wouldn’t be here. I loved high school. I loved each step of the way. I love learning.”