Thursday, December 13, 2012

Solving Utah's Dismal Graduation Rate

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 without a large outlay of new money.

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.

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.
Maureen Kopecky, Ogden High head counselor 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.

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.

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.

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.

Lakeridge principal Garrick 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 indefinable factors, like the commitment and attitude of teachers and parents that contribute to a school's success.

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." Deseret News