Gaffney High graduation coach is the ‘real deal’

By Lynne P. Shackleford
Published: Monday, October 20, 2014 at 5:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 20, 2014 at 5:27 p.m.

Photo:  Daniel Foster, a graduation coach at Gaffney High School, right, talks with Isaac Polanco, 15, a student at the school, on Wednesday between classes. MICHAEL JUSTUS/

Gaffney High School graduation coach Daniel Foster gives students two things many of them have never had: encouragement and hope.

“When I look at them, I see me,” Foster said. “I’ve been where they are. Some of them don’t think they can get a diploma. Some don’t have support at home. Some have just made a bad grade in core class, and they’re off track, but somewhere along the way, they have to get hope back.”

Fresh out of high school 20 years ago, Foster was working with a plumbing crew when the company’s owner asked him about his future plans.

Foster had just graduated from Gaffney High School and wasn’t interested in college; he just wanted to work. The company’s owner, the late Gene Wilson, then drove Foster around rural communities — Corinth, Goucher and Blacksburg — before stopping the car.

“He asked me which community I liked best, and I didn’t know where he was coming from,” Foster said. “But he told me that if I didn’t make something of myself that I would never go anywhere else — I wouldn’t even have the option of going anywhere else — and that hit home to me.”

Wilson then drove Foster to Spartanburg Methodist College and helped him enroll in a two-year program.

“That man did more for me that day because I saw that someone else saw my potential,” Foster said. “I understood then that I could be something.”

After visiting six countries during his 11 years in the Army, Foster returned home and started working as a long-term substitute at Gaffney High School before becoming the in-school suspension coordinator. He is now the school’s first graduation coach, and is tasked with coaching and mentoring at-risk students, mostly those who repeated ninth-grade and other students he calls “geographically displaced seniors.” The latter are students who should be seniors, but failed English or math classes so they are in 11th grade homerooms.

Gaffney High Principal Rashaad Fitzpatrick said the graduation coach position was created based on best practices from the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. The center recommends using a holistic approach with individualized success plans for at-risk students and having a facilitator, or coach, monitoring students.

“Mr. Foster was a good fit because he had already built relationships with some students as the (in-school suspension) supervisor last year,” Fitzpatrick said. “He is one of those people who understands what we’re trying to accomplish and goes the extra mile to make it happen.”

Foster said he has no doubt the school’s graduation rate of 78 percent, just below the state average, will rise this year just out of will and determination. His goal is a graduation rate of 80 percent this year.

“We’re going to show everyone that we can do it,” Foster said. “No doubt in my mind that the rate will go up this year. When you lay it out for them, show them a path to success, they’ll make it.”

At the beginning of the year, Foster was assigned to 138 students at Gaffney High and the alternative school and mapped out an individualized plan for each. He meets with each of them at least twice a week and attends classes with them periodically to monitor how they take notes and to hear their concerns. Foster refers them to tutors or peer study groups and contacts their teachers to monitor progress.

If they are chronically absent, Foster and another district staffer go to their houses to find out what issues they are facing.

“Mr. Foster is stepping in as a counselor, a father, a big brother. Somewhere they’re not getting the guidance or love they need, and he’s the boots on the ground, so to speak,” said in-school suspension supervisor Tierney Rollins, who works closely with Foster. “He knows them, remembers what their goals are; he works really hard… His goal is to help them realize that ‘I can do this, and life will be different.’”

Rollins said Foster is an “encourager at every turn.”

“If we have a student who has a behavior issue, Mr. Foster finds the core issue behind the behavioral problem,” Rollins said. “He shows them discipline and love and tells them they can learn from their mistakes, and what he’s telling them comes from his heart.”

Jamie Brown, who teaches Algebra II, said students take Foster’s advice and motivation to heart.

“When he walks in the classroom, I see the faces of the students he’s trying to help,” Brown said. “They know Mr. Foster provides accountability. They know he’s watching them, and they want to take better notes. They want to listen and do the work.”

Brown said one student was a few credits off-track and was coming to class unprepared. After being referred to Foster, the student came to Brown’s class the following day with class work he had missed, prepared to take notes.

“I was shocked,” Brown said. “The parents are involved now. Mr. Foster makes it click for these students.”

Foster said all students want to succeed, but they’ve lost faith and drive somewhere along the way.

“I’ve lived their life,” Foster said. “When I was in middle school and high school, no one forced me to study.”

Isaac Polanco, 15, should be a sophomore, but is repeating ninth grade because he failed algebra with a 68 — two points shy of a D. Polanco, one of Foster’s students, has an 86 in geometry so far this semester, and he’s on track to become a sophomore in December.

“Mr. Foster is the real deal,” Polanco said. “He knows what’s going on with us because he cares enough to ask. He wants us to make it. I’m proud of the grades I’m making now, and I will get back on track, but it would’ve been a lot harder without him.”

Donna Phillips, guidance director, said just nine weeks into the school year, she’s already seen students who are making progress.  “I see they’re more motivated; they have direction,” Phillips said. “We’re so fortunate to have him. He’s pushing the kids to succeed.”