Solving Utah's dismal graduation rate: Two schools may have the answer
Incentive, aesthetic initiatives boost rates, but more needed
It's a common problem, as grade configurations often mean students begin falling off track in junior high. After the success of their senior Hot Lists, Ogden School District asked junior high schools to make freshman lists as well, and counselors from feeder and upper level schools work together to get students back on track and to stop them from falling off in the first place.
"We're trying to identify them as early as possible," Ben Smith said.
Catching kids early
John Jesse, director of assessment and accountability for the State Office of Education, said the transition from middle to high school is a critical time when students begin slipping through the cracks. He said many junior high schools in the state use summer programs to make up lost credits, but some of the most successful programs give extra class time or restrict a student's ability to take elective courses during the school year until they pass required coursework.
"You have that student captured, legally, during the regular academic year," he said. "You don't have large numbers of students dropping out as seniors. The impact needs to happen in the ninth and 10th grades."
Six years ago, 46 percent of Lakeridge Junior High School ninth-graders made the transition to high school with at least one "F" on their transcripts. Last year, that number was reduced to 2 percent in the Orem school.
"That's basically going to doom you for graduation," Lakeridge principal Garrick Peterson said.
The school implemented teacher working groups, data analysis and flex time, in which students who are failing their classes have 30 additional minutes in class each day. Student performance overall has notably improved, as has the performance of the Hispanic student population, which makes up roughly one-quarter of the student body. In the past 10 years, the number of Hispanic students passing math has grown from 31 percent to 82 percent and in language arts it has grown from 34 percent to 89 percent.
"It goes down to the school system being able to change," Peterson said. "We just have to be good at our job."
Is money needed?
Peterson said for the most part, the school has been able to implement the changes with little additional costs. Flex time, for example, required only the reallocation of time and resources. He estimated that the costs associated with the data analysis, which required an additional secretary, as well as summer hours and conferencing to train teachers add up to an annual cost of $20,000, which is absorbed as a priority of the school's fund from trust land money.
Similarly at Ogden High School, Briggs said the school has been able to handle the extended lunch periods, data analysis and home visits with existing staff and resources. Two part-time attendance trackers were brought on to help get students to class, for a combined total of $25,000, which is paid for through a federal school improvement grant.
While there are certain practices and procedures educators can point to as catalysts for improvement, Kopecky said there are a number of undefinable factors, like the commitment and attitude of teachers and parents, that contribute to a school's success.
"It's like an airplane crash, it's never one thing," she said. "It's a series of things that are put in place."
Geihs spoke of the importance of involving students in the dialogue of school and performance improvement. He said that to be successful, educators need to be clinical, like physicians, as well as ministerial, like reverends.
"You can't do anything to help a student progress without positive relationships," he said. "Everybody needs to understand where they were and where they need to go academically."
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