Solving Utah's dismal graduation rate: Two schools may have the answer
Incentive, aesthetic initiatives boost rates, but more needed
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is the fourth-worst state in the nation for graduating Latino students, with just 57 percent of seniors collecting a diploma each year.
The sobering numbers, better than only Minnesota, Nevada and Washington, D.C., and first reported last week, were called disappointing and unacceptable by Gov. Gary Herbert as he cited poverty levels and language barriers as contributors to the low performance.
But at least two programs both inside and outside the state of Utah could provide a template for how to increase the number of high school graduates, particularly in the minority communities that lag far behind other states.
The schools have successfully increased graduation rates and student performance by offering incentives for good attendance, requiring extended class time for struggling students and using in-depth analysis of assessment data to track and target individual at-risk children.
In many cases, these programs are coupled with sweeping administrative and faculty changes that officials say help create a new atmosphere of learning, and it's done with out a large outlay of new money.
The search for solutions
In Nevada, the Clark County School District has seen results from naming schools "turnaround schools" after three years of persistent low achievement and implementing a district turnaround strategy of data analysis, professional learning communities and classroom walkthroughs by administrators and educational experts.
Jeff Geihs, the district's academic manager who oversees the turnaround program, said every teacher is expected to know where each of his or her students is academically. Groups of teachers then meet regularly to track individual and collective student progress.
The practices aren't rocket science, Geihs said, but represent tried-and-true best practices that are simply non-negotiable. Student assessment scores and graduation rates have increased in as little as one year as faculty and staff work to implement a framework of expectations.
"Every school in some way or another has shown achievement," he said. "So significant that they're an anomaly."
But turnaround schools also undergo cosmetic changes that Geihs said are crucial to establishing a new educational culture. Administrators and teachers are replaced, graffiti and vandalism are removed, class schedules are adjusted and a new school mission and vision is established.
"To be successful and effective, it must be considered a brand-new school," he said. "The only thing that should be the same is the kids."
Minority graduation rates in Utah have steadily increased each year, but the state continues to lag behind the nation and public schools are expected to become more diverse. Utah's 137,647 minority students account for 23 percent of the state's public education population, according to the Utah State Office of Education, and are growing at more than double the rate of the state as a whole.
Schools around the country have tried various methods of targeting their at-risk student populations and while progress has been slow, gains have been made. Richard Fry, a senior researcher with the Pew Hispanic Center, said that more than three-fourths of Hispanic adults ages 18 to 24 have a high school diploma or GED, a benchmark reached last year.
"Hispanic high school completion, nationally, is higher than it's ever been," he said. "It's been rising, particularly in the last five years."
Fry said the recession could be partly responsible for the increase, as fewer jobs makes dropping out of school to enter the workforce less viable. He said it is unknown if the dropout rates will return to pre-recession levels as the economy improves.
Successes in Ogden
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.
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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