Keeping children in school through graduation is the objective of two federally supported programs operating in San Juan School District.

The district received two U.S. Department of Education grants, both approximately $250,000, to address a high dropout rate, especially among Indian students, said Mel Walker, assistant district superintendent.A University of Utah educational anthropologist conducted a study from 1985-88 in the district and found that only 47 percent of the Indian students graduated in the prescribed 13-year course. Another 10 percent obtained diplomas through non-traditional routes such as extending their time in public school or taking the GED test, said Dr. Donna Deyhle.

Deyhle, who studies factors that contribute to student success or failure, used a small mineral lease grant to conduct her research and helped San Juan District to pursue the larger Education Department grants.

The first grant is being used by the district to finance Project Stay, which focuses on children in all 12 grades. The project goal is to identify, as early as possible in their school experience, children at risk of dropping out, then provide special services and enrichment to these children, said Monty Lee, project director.

The second, a partnership grant, was provided jointly to the school district, College of Eastern Utah and the Utah Navajo Development Council. It will concentrate on high school students.

"We felt very fortunate to get both grants," Lee said. "They were very competitive."

Five of San Juan District's 12 schools border on or are inside Navajo Indian reservation boundaries. Cultural and language differences contribute to the high number of students who fail to complete the prescribe 13 years of public school, Lee said.

Project Stay funding has enabled the district to hire special "intervention specialists" to work with students who are thought to be at risk. At least 125 students will participate in special programs to build self-esteem, improve academic grades and involve parents. They may receive a variety of services, including tutoring, counseling or involvement in an "adopt-a-student" program in which they receive a teacher's extra attention.

Children can be referred by a teacher, principal or parent, Lee said.

Through past experience, educators have identified several criteria that put a child at risk, including academic failure, poor reading, lack of involvement in extracurricular activities, low socioeconomic status, behavior problems, poor attendance and poor involvement in school in general.

Project Stay offers up to 20 hours of special training for parents of at-risk students and encourages them to serve on school parent committees and otherwise involve themselves in their children's education.

The partnership grant made it possible to expand counseling services in the district's high schools, Lee said, and to develop a summer program that focuses on both academic goals and self-motivation activities.

Educators expect that it will take up to four years to assess the impact of the at-risk programs, but, Lee said "We see a difference already."