District focuses on barriers

LYNNWOOD – For all the national research, there’s no surefire way to stop the steady tide of high school dropouts.

What clicks at one school might not work at the next.

The problem reaches far and wide. Nearly 2,200 students – about the number of students at Lake Stevens High School – drop out of Snohomish County high schools each year. That represents nearly one-quarter of every graduating class, and is about the same as the statewide rate.

Kevin Nortz / The Herald

Scriber Lake High School’s homework club “keeps me focused,” said senior Tony Orduna, 17. His homework assignment was to analyze magazine ads for marketing trends.

And each school district is left to confront the problem on its own.

For more than a year within the Edmonds School District, a dropout prevention committee has examined the institutional roadblocks that come between students and their diplomas.

“We are really focusing on what we are doing as a system instead of what’s wrong with the student,” said Jan Beglau, the district’s director of student support and outreach programs. “It’s a different focus from what we have done in the past.”

Last fall, the district interviewed nearly 100 middle and high school students who were seen as dropout risks about barriers to their graduation. It will share what it has learned with teachers in May.

The district has given schools money for after-school academic programs geared for students who need help. Eight of the district’s nine high schools and middle schools now have programs in place.

Scriber Lake High School, an alternative school in Lynnwood, has devised an intervention program that uses contracts with each student and works like a traffic light.

About once a month, freshmen and sophomore students are informed of their academic performance using a color code.

Green means the student is on track; yellow signals potential problems; and red signifies the student has fallen behind and must attend an after-school homework club.

“If I left it as, ‘Homework club is a place they can go if they want,’ no one would go,” Clift said.

The thinking is simple: Kids who don’t fall behind in ninth and 10th grade are less likely to drop out.

Jeff Keeley, a Scriber Lake teacher, oversees the after-school program, but students can check in with him and go to other classrooms to get one-on-one help.

“This year, it has become mandatory, and that’s made a big difference,” Keeley said. “It is really helping.”

At Scriber Lake, the average number of credits for the first semester was 2.55 out of a possible 3 credits. Most students were right on track.

Samantha Boyd, 17, fell behind early in high school and transferred to Scriber Lake. She will be in homework club for the rest of the semester and misses hanging out with her friends.

She’s not complaining, though.

“It’s hard to get my homework done at home,” she said. “I’m pretty glad they have this. I would probably be in a big mess if they didn’t.”

Staci Morrison, 16, a sophomore, said she is failing several classes, but homework club is helping her make better choices.

“I’d be with my friends,” she said. “I don’t like doing homework outside of class so I like being here for this class. This keeps me preoccupied.”

The homework club is an example of a school changing itself to better meet student needs, Beglau said.

The dropout prevention committee has other initiatives underway:

* Making sure schools know about a policy revision that allows students to earn partial academic credit so they don’t have to repeat entire semesters;

* Strategies to improve transitions between elementary school and middle school and middle school and high school;

* Exit surveys and interviews with dropouts;

* Techniques to strengthen the relationship between students and teachers to make school more personal and give students a greater sense of belonging.

Beglau said the issues surrounding dropouts are complex.

When she first arrived at the district more than a decade ago, she hoped to get to the root of the issues. She organized a pizza party and invited dropouts from across the district to share their experiences.

No one showed, and she was left with the pizza.

Today, she believes the district is on the right track in setting priorities and adding focus on struggling students.

Time will tell, she said.

“I think the biggest indicators will be if we reduce our dropout and increase our on-time graduation rates,” she said.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or stevick@heraldnet.com.

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