Working to keep students in school

Posted: Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Peggy Cowan

District news

Imagine a Juneau-Douglas High School freshman in a three-student science lab group. Before the year is over, one will move away. A second will fail to graduate with his class in the spring of 2008.

If the lab group includes students of Asian, Pacific Island or European descent, or whose first language is other than English, or who have disabilities, they will be more likely to make it. If the lab group has students of poverty, or of Alaska Native or Hispanic descent, they will be less likely to get a diploma.

The district calculates dropouts in two ways. The first is the graduation rate, the percentage of students who enter school in ninth grade and graduate with their class four years later. (Some students who are not reflected in the graduation rate do graduate later as fifth- or sixth-year seniors.) The 2002-2003 JSD graduation rate was 65 percent. The 2003-2004 JSD graduation rate was 63 percent.

The second is the dropout rate, the percentage of students in grades 7-12 who drop out in a single year. The 2002-2003 JSD dropout rate was 6 percent. The 2003-2004 JSD dropout rate was 3.6 percent, or 103 students.

The state has changed the definitions and formulas for determining these rates, so it is difficult to compare changes over time, but we know our efforts are steadily showing modest success.

We know that transience is significant to dropping out. Nationwide, 40 percent of students change schools one or more times before they graduate. Research in California indicates that students who change high schools are less than half as likely to graduate than other students. While many school transfers are for reasons beyond the district's influence, we can assist homeless students who often move four or five times. For example, during the first quarter of this year, the district provided transportation for forty homeless students to attend the school where they enrolled in August.

The district provides a menu of programs aimed at student retention and success. Just this week, the Continuous Connection program was launched at the high school. A small group of students meets regularly with a teacher. The long-term goal is to assure that every student has a familiar caring adult who can monitor their high school progress.

The CHOICE program is for students in grades 9-11 who have not experienced academic success in the past. Students participate in after-school studies, job internships, lower student-to-teacher ratios and community-building retreats.

Older, credit-deficient students are most likely to leave school early. Computer-based courses at JDHS allow self-paced accelerated credit recovery.

Other initiatives include a tutor and home-school liaison for students of Alaska Native heritage, orientation and peer-mentoring for freshmen, small literacy groups for those behind in reading skills, free tutoring services, peer tutoring, and an intensive tracking program through the local nonprofit youth services organization. And we are recruiting for another part-time counselor.

However, we know that preventing students from dropping out must start in elementary school. Students who are absent or tardy a lot are those students who later drop out. The district's truancy tracker works with students and families to improve attendance. She calls, makes home visits, provides wake-up calls and assists students with organizational tools and skills in an effort to get them to school.

Elementary schools address dropout prevention by focusing on academic success and social-emotional skills and connections primarily through the child's regular classroom. The district also provides specialists in English language learning, literacy, and for special education needs. Currently, the district is using a grant to strengthen the counseling support for elementary students.

The district's strategic plan zeroes in on dropout prevention. Strategy One reads: Graduation Success for All. Examine and analyze longitudinal data on early leavers using findings to develop K-12 programs to ensure that all students graduate. The strategy work is being done by a committee, led by Patty Newman, Mendenhall River principal, and Phil Loseby, JSD curriculum and assessment coordinator. Committee members are analyzing data to learn who the early leavers are, interviewing students who have left school to discover why, examining promising dropout prevention programs from Juneau and other areas to find ways to keep Juneau students in school.

The committee meets the second Tuesday of each month at 4 pm in the district's Central Office at 12th and Glacier Ave. We welcome parents and community partners in this effort. (call 463-1700, ext. 320) Together, we can help more young adults walk across that stage each spring.

• Peggy Cowan is Juneau School District superintendent.

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