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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane high school graduation rates hit 83 percent

High school graduation rates have soared to 83 percent in Spokane, a turnabout that has earned national accolades.

Six years ago, only six in 10 students were finishing high school. The poor performance spurred a grassroots effort that has made a difference with Spokane Public Schools.

“We are very pleased with the results,” Superintendent Shelley Redinger said. “But we still have a ways to go. We have to figure out who we are still losing.”

Business and political leaders, philanthropists, volunteers and school officials made improvement a priority. The concern triggered two grant-funded studies, led to new dropout intervention programs, launched community partnerships and inspired the creation of a database to track student behavior, attendance and grades.

Within the past year, those efforts have led to 1,000 students given mentoring; 850 students touring a college campus; mobile food banks providing food to 2,500 families; and additional learning opportunities, tutoring and homework help for students.

Not only is the districtwide graduation rate up, every comprehensive high school – Ferris, Rogers, North Central, Lewis and Clark and Shadle Park – is graduating more than 80 percent of its students, according to district data. In 2008, only 49 percent of Rogers’ students earned diplomas.

Graduation rates in Washington’s second-largest district are now greater than the state’s average of 76 percent.

The community effort to improve students’ chances for graduation also brought recognition to Spokane County. The New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation – a philanthropy devoted to public health – acknowledged community leaders with the Culture of Health Award for its efforts to promote a healthier lifestyle by giving students more opportunities to succeed.

“What really stood out about Spokane is they were able to do this incredible collaboration with a laser focus,” said Marjorie Paloma, a foundation director.

By helping students get a diploma, they are helping each of those individuals live longer, healthier lives, she said.

A turning point was a study done to determine “what did the students who were not graduating look like,” said Joan Poirier, a special programs supervisor.

The study by Mary Beth Celio looked at dropouts from the classes of 2008 and 2010. She found common threads: most had four or more unexcused absences a year, often starting as early as third grade; they had at least one suspension or expulsion; and records showed failing grades in one or more subjects.

Celio’s study was incorporated into a database called the Early Warning System. This allows educators to track each student’s progress and intervene as soon as a problem arises in any of those areas.

“We are finding the earlier we intervene the better the results,” Redinger said. It’s also having options for students, such as On-Track Academy – a program that gives high school students a second chance to earn missing credits toward graduation. She also pointed to the Community School, which offers project-based learning.

She added, “Moving the finish line is helping too; looking beyond high school graduation to technical school or college.”

Educators who identify a problem with a student are more commonly considering what their community partners have to offer so they can point students and parents in the right direction for help, such as homework assistance, mentoring or referral to a food bank and health care services.

For middle school students struggling with truancy, a team connects them with social services ranging from rides to school to a new pair of shoes.

“To get the graduation rate up, it’s really looking at each student as an individual and what do they need to succeed,” Poirier said. “As a district, we welcome the support of our partners. We know we can’t do it alone. It’s become a true collaborative effort.”

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