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New levy would fund Spokane dropout prevention

Joshua Joseph, center, and Shawn Magat, on floor, rehearse a scene in a play produced by On-Track Academy, which caters to high school juniors and seniors who need credits to graduate. (Christopher Anderson)
Joshua Joseph, center, and Shawn Magat, on floor, rehearse a scene in a play produced by On-Track Academy, which caters to high school juniors and seniors who need credits to graduate. (Christopher Anderson)

Educators, others say more ‘niche programs’ needed

There’s no one-word answer for why kids drop out of school.

Health problems, a lack of parental support, homelessness, fear, lack of motivation or self-esteem, parents in jail or on drugs, custody battles, depression or caring for a sick sibling or parent are just a sample of the reasons a student might struggle and not finish school.

“There is an assumption that kids who need help to graduate are bad, ‘less than,’ not worthy, lazy or badly behaved,” said Lisa Mattson-Coleman, site director of the newest Spokane Public Schools dropout prevention program, called On-Track Academy. “Every kid here is bright. Every kid has potential.”

Spokane Public Schools has a dropout rate of nearly 29 percent, which is among the 20 highest in Washington. In Spokane County, nearly one in three students fails to graduate.

Spokane educators, children’s advocates, nonprofits and community leaders hope to lower the city’s dropout rate by studying the problem, figuring out more ways to help kids in schools and boosting funding for proven community programs.

“There are a lot of different services our kids need. Education is just one of them,” said Nancy Stowell, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools.

Spokane’s dropout rate was one of the primary drivers behind an effort to put a levy before voters in August that would create a Children’s Investment Fund.

Signature collection is under way, and organizers say they’re halfway to their goal, “gaining massive amounts of momentum every week,” said Ben Stuckart, a member of the fund’s steering committee and director of Communities in Schools, a business-funded nonprofit. “The community has been very receptive.”

‘Economic freight train’

So far, nearly 40 organizations have joined the effort that would put the Children’s Investment Fund levy before voters in August. Supporters say successful passage of the measure could decrease the dropout rate in Spokane by 20 percent.

To get there, however, organizers need to gather 8,400 valid signatures. So far, about 6,000 people have signed; the goal is 12,000 signatures by the April 19 deadline.

If approved, the six-year levy would raise $5 million annually and would cost Spokane property owners about 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Advocates say the fund is necessary because the dropout rate is not just a school district’s problem, it’s the community’s problem.

“Taking care of our youth will not only help children who face terrible conditions, but it saves money and produces a healthier community,” said Austin DePaolo, a Children’s Investment Fund steering committee member.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich agrees. “The dropout rate is an economic freight train,” he said during a recent presentation.

A recent nationwide study shows the adverse effect that high dropout rates can have on a community. According to the study, “If half the students who dropped out of the class of 2008 had graduated, they would have generated $4.1 billion more in wages and $536 million in state and local taxes nationally in one average year of their working lives.”

Money would go to programs large and small

Spokane’s levy would be modeled after similar initiatives across the nation, including one in Oregon.

The Portland Children’s Levy has been in existence for more than seven years. It provides funding for about 70 programs focused on early childhood education, child abuse prevention, foster care support, and after-school and mentoring programs, said Director Lisa Pellegrino. Programs receive anywhere from $33,000 to $463,000 annually.

“In a broad sense, yes, the programs are all dropout prevention,” Pellegrino said. “They are all aimed at the success of children, educational and otherwise.”

Money in Spokane’s levy would be allocated similarly, Stuckart said. “There are a ton of programs. It’s just that they are small and pocketed.”

Potential recipients could include programs at well-known organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Club, YMCA and YWCA, but also might include smaller programs such as Pony Tales, a free teen drop-in center at NorthTown Mall, or Tincan, which offers after-school programs focused on film and technology.

In recent years, the Spokane area has lost more than $4 million in funding directed at middle- and elementary-school kids, officials say. A majority of the money was used for after-school programs, while some of it was used for drug and alcohol prevention efforts.

The loss of those after-school programs has been acute, Stuckart said. “After-school programs provide a safe place for children; students who participate in extracurricular activities develop social and emotional skills that they may not have a chance to develop otherwise; and national research shows that students who participate in after-school programs have better grades, better attendance and less behavioral problems – all of which are significant risk factors for dropping out.”

On-Track has 95 percent graduation rate

While Spokane Public Schools grapples with its dropout rate, the district is seeing success in new programs and hoping to develop more.

“The key is having the right program for kids, so they don’t drop out, or there’s a way to catch them up,” Stowell said.

The On-Track Academy, which started in spring 2009, is one, school officials say. The program focuses on high school juniors and seniors who lack the credits needed to graduate but who have passed the reading or writing state assessment tests. Many say they were destined to drop out.

Sharlotte Robinson, 18, discovered the On-Track Academy at Spokane Public Schools two semesters ago. She’d moved from Reno, where her father was stealing from her mother to support his methamphetamine habit, she said.

When Robinson enrolled, she had six high school credits. In Spokane Public Schools, students need 22 to graduate. The teen is set to graduate in June.

“On-Track is successful because it’s highly personalized,” said Fred Schrumpf, who oversees the On-Track Academy and is principal of Havermale High School, an alternative school. “Every student’s story is known. They are all motivated to finish school, because they have a future interest. We are graduating about 95 percent of our kids.”

There’s no traditional classroom instruction.

Students can work at the school, which is located at the district’s Skills Center in north Spokane, or from a different location.

“They let you be individuals,” Robinson said of the teachers in the program. “Instead of raising your hand and feeling awkward, you feel comfortable just saying, ‘Hey, can you come help me?’ ”

There are 180 juniors and seniors enrolled in On-Track. Of the 107 seniors, 75 are set to graduate in June and 32 in August.

Enrollment in the program is expected to nearly double in the fall, Schrumpf said.

Creating ‘niche programs’

While On-Track is a districtwide opportunity, individual schools also have programs.

The grant-funded Community Learning Center after-school program at Rogers and North Central high schools is focused on reducing the number of students who drop out of high school. It started in January.

Students have the opportunity to improve their skills in math and literacy, to earn credit in courses they previously failed, and to get one-to-one academic tutoring and mentoring.

Mental health, drug and alcohol counseling are also available.

Lewis and Clark High School has a program called LC Core, formed in 2008 to address the needs of incoming freshmen identified as struggling learners.

“The idea is that if students experience success at the beginning of high school, they will be much more likely to gain traction and continue through high school,” said district spokeswoman Terren Roloff.

About 30 percent of freshmen in Spokane Public Schools were found to be credit-deficient after the first semester, according to recent district research. One of the top reasons for kids dropping out is because they’ve fallen behind, several studies show.

In LC Core, the identified freshmen are paired with teachers who guide them academically and socially.

“We are trying to create other niche programs,” Stowell said. “We need to start more programs in general, but every time we do, it costs money.”

Video: On-Track Academy

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