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Efforts bring higher graduation rates at area high schools

Fewer students in Spokane are dropping out of school.

Spokane Public Schools improved its on-time graduation rate by 8 percentage points in 2010, state data showed Thursday, and officials credit efforts to update how students are tracked and dropout intervention programs.

The state’s second-largest district improved its graduation rate to 70.2 from from 62 percent, and pulled within 6 percentage points of the state average; the difference between the two in 2009 was 11 percentage points.

“We’ve been waiting for the state to release their figures, and we were anticipating this progress,” said Sue Chapin, Spokane school board president. “We are pleased, but we won’t be satisfied until all of our students are successful. It’s still not good enough, and we know that.”

Improving the graduation rate in Spokane County has been a priority for local leaders, philanthropists and district officials. Their concern triggered a grant-funded middle school study, led to new dropout intervention programs in several districts and prompted a new position within Spokane Public Schools to track students who leave the district.

The effort has apparently made a difference because several districts in the Spokane area improved rates by at least 2 percentage points or more. On-time graduation rates in East Valley School District rose from 70 percent to 97 percent, and West Valley School District’s rate improved about 12 percentage points.

With smaller student populations – East Valley has 4,411 and West Valley 3,602, compared with Spokane’s 28,123 – it may be easier for those schools to make rapid, dramatic improvements.

Statewide, the graduation rate also improved more than 3 percentage points, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Nancy Stowell, Spokane Public Schools superintendent, said programs such as On-Track, and simply finding out where students go once they leave the district, made the difference in the on-time graduation rate for 2010.

Shadle Park High School had the highest rate with 87.4 percent followed by Lewis and Clark (83.7 percent), Ferris (83.4 percent), North Central (74.1 percent), and Rogers (60.4 percent). Havermale, the district’s alternative high school, has an on-time graduation rate of 22.6 percent.

For the overall district, 4 percentage points of the improvement was directly related to better tracking, officials said.

Joan Poirier, who helped coordinate the efforts to better track students, became the graduation and college success supervisor on July 1, 2010.

“We had a list of 732 students who were shown at the end of the school year with a drop code,” Poirier said. Students are coded that way if they are an unconfirmed transfer – left the district, had been absent for 20 days or more or “for a variety of reasons we had them not enrolled or continuing to the next year.”

Staff at the high schools then went through the lists, trying to figure out where the students went. “Through that work, calling emergency contacts or the district we thought they went to, did we find all? No, but we found a lot of the students,” Poirier said.

“There were even some cases where the district located a student, and helped them get that final credit they needed to graduate,” Poirier said. “That’s what happened for 38 students.”

Now high schools get a monthly list of students who are considered a drop.

“We also had a handful of students who were released for a GED or high school completion at the Institute for Extended Learning,” Poirier said. If students are doing high school completion, they can be counted as a transfer. If they’re getting their GED, they are counted as a dropout.

“This is a new process for us,” Poirier said.

Much of the work to track students was being done, Poirier says, but wasn’t coordinated. “That’s been my role.”

Another tactic is creating a profile of a student by looking at their high school credits and GPA.

“We get a clearer picture of who these students are, and whether we have the programs that can help,” Poirier said. “Our goal is to get them back into their home high school, but that doesn’t always work.”

That’s where the intervention programs come in. The On-Track Academy is a dropout-prevention program that helps high school juniors and seniors get the credits they need to graduate. So far the program has had a 95 percent graduation rate.

Poirier says that program alone improved the rate by 3 to 4 percentage points. But there are other efforts that are making a difference at individual schools, such as matching teachers with struggling freshmen and sophomores, and pairing older students with younger students. “The technical fix is an easy fix,” Stowell said. “The real proof will be in the programs.”

Spokane 70.2%
Central Valley 84.6%
East Valley97.2%
Mead 86.1%
West Valley 96.3%