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Costa Mesa admin interns Kristen Kowalczyk Rivas and Thao Nguyen-Kung with Golden Bell logo


The California School Boards Association recently recognized Newport-Mesa Unified School District (NMUSD) as a Golden Bell Award winner for its Graduation Coach Program. With a graduation rate of more than 98 percent, the program has proven to be an exemplary model for other districts to emulate.  

Developed in 2021 to improve learning gaps, the Graduation Coach Program utilizes a six-step process led by administrative interns at secondary schools to assist more students in graduating high school with multiple post-secondary options. The administrative interns serve as coaches to those students whom they identify as needing more support in graduating, such as students with two or more failing grades or who are at least 20 credits off track for graduation. 

Once the graduation coaches identify students who fit the criteria, they determine the needs of students on an individual basis by examining their academic backgrounds, including reading levels, test scores, etc. They meet with each student to determine causes of that student’s struggles, then provide support and resources to overcome those challenges and become successful in their education. Students’ needs range from finding academic tutoring to securing bus passes to working with a counselor on social emotional learning tools. For some students, the first barrier to success is simply getting to school, which can make them feel disconnected with their school community. 

Working closely with students and their families, the graduation coaches set milestones for success for each student. For a student with poor attendance, this might be coming to school every day for a month. This step allows the administrative interns to set metrics by which they can measure students’ success.

“It’s important to look at the data, but it’s just as vital to connect with the students one-on-one. For middle school students, it’s important to develop the positive habits that they’ll need to carry into high school,” said Kristen Kowalczyk Rivas, an administrative intern who works with seventh- and eighth-graders at Costa Mesa Middle and High School.

Each graduation coach works with 150 to 180 students. They check in regularly with students to ensure the designated resources are bringing students closer to their goals. 

“Mrs. Thao Nguyen-Kung has had a huge impact on me and many other students. She has always been supportive and does an incredible job staying involved with not only my progress, but other students’, too,” said Costa Mesa high School Senior Pedro Avila. In addition to getting back on track for graduation, Avila has become more involved with his school community by helping to establish a handball club on campus.

Since 2021, more than 3,000 students have been served by the Graduation Coach Program. Last year, of the seniors who participated in the program, more than 98 percent graduated from high school.

“The results of our Graduation Coach Program have been incredible, thanks to a combination of the right people and the right system,” said Director of Secondary Education Dr. Mike Sciacca. 

Since 1979, Golden Bell Awards have acknowledged exemplary programs and best practices in school districts throughout California. NMUSD has obtained seven Golden Bell Awards since 2005.