Solving Utah's dismal graduation rate: Two schools may have the answer

Incentive, aesthetic initiatives boost rates, but more needed

Published: Saturday, Dec. 8 2012 11:30 p.m. MST

In Ogden School District, one of the most diverse and historically low-performing school districts in the state, a focus on improved attendance and the use of individual student data-tracking, as well as district-wide administrative shakeups, has resulted in marked improvements in student proficiency and graduation rates.

Between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 academic years, the graduation rate at Ben Lomond High School increased from 78 percent to 81 percent. Ben Lomond's sister school, Ogden High School, saw even greater gains, jumping 11 percentage points from 77 percent to 88 percent.

The reason: They are focusing on getting kids to class, including providing incentives for keeping them there.

Both schools graduate roughly 98 percent of their senior students who attend class. Both schools are also evenly split between white and Hispanic students and a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"It's a highly diverse, highly impacted school," Principal Stacey Briggs said of Ogden High School. "We had 307 seniors last year, and 302 of them graduated with a diploma, and they were not on track to graduate at the beginning of the year."

Ogden's schools create "Hot Lists" — coined by district superintendent Brad Smith — in which counselors create a list of the students most at risk for graduation to work with on an individual basis. Hot List students are also assigned to a school faculty member, meaning near-daily feedback on their homework, grades, attendance, and academic standing.

"Every single teacher in my group had to pick one of those seniors and say they would bug them to death," said Maureen Kopecky, Ogden High head counselor. "We don't let time go by. If they don't make progress we schedule with their parents, but we have the faculty bugging them too, so it's this grand scheme of kicking them."

The schools also use incentives to encourage attendance, like an extended lunch period for students who keep their grades up and tardies down.

Ben Smith, principal of Ben Lomond High School, said the incentives have translated into measurable data. In just the first four weeks of the school's second terms, there were 954 tardies in 2010, 570 tardies in 2011 and 389 tardies this year.

"When that bell rings, our halls are clear, and that's been a great culture change," he said.

At Ogden High School, Principal Stacey Briggs said consecutive absences earn students a home visit from a member of the school staff.

"We have to go see where they are," she said. "We have the 'attendance huddle' once a week in the morning and out of that huddle there's usually 10 to 12 home visits that are assigned. My assistant principals are going out, my counselors are going out, and we chase kids and try to keep them in school."

Those visits are also used as a tool for bringing students who have dropped out back into the fold. Briggs said that in the past year her student body has swelled by 200 students who were previously not staying in school.

Kopecky said in the past there was little consequence for a student arriving late, or not at all, to class. Now, she said, students have responded to the incentives — and some punitive measures — and in the process have figured out that it's easier to pass their classes when they actually attend.

"I saw kids sprinting. We could have have had a world-class track team last year," she said.

The schools also rely heavily on student tracking data, part of a district-wide effort that has seen the halls and classrooms of Ogden School District decorated with graphs and tables tracking performance and attendance.

In Briggs' office, a large white board in the corner shows each grade's breakdown with the number of students off-track for graduation written in red. In the sophomore column, a red figure shows that more than 100 students were already credit deficient before they took one step in Ogden High School's halls.

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