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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Focused effort yields graduation dividend

After turning to community, Spokane schools top statewide averages in many categories

Mackenzie McIntyre’s first year at Rogers High School was especially difficult.

By the time she was a freshman, McIntyre had grown tired of moving around Spokane with her mother, who struggled with alcoholism and rarely came home.

“She wasn’t there a lot,” McIntyre recalled. “I didn’t have someone there to tell me, ‘This is how things are; this is what’s going to happen next.’ ”

Her grades slipping and future uncertain, McIntyre petitioned a court to release her from her mother’s custody, while a friend’s parents assumed legal guardianship and took her into their home. If it weren’t for that, she said, finishing high school would have been nearly impossible.

Now 18, McIntyre looks forward to graduating Saturday. She’ll join Rogers’ Class of 2015 at a time when the district is boasting its highest graduation rates in years.

According to data released recently by the state superintendent’s office, each of Spokane Public Schools’ comprehensive high schools – Ferris, Rogers, North Central, Lewis and Clark and Shadle Park – graduated more than 80 percent of students, beating the statewide graduation rate of 77.2 percent last year. The district’s on-time graduation rate soared to 83 percent in 2014, for a total of 1,606 graduating seniors.

In 2008, only six in 10 students were graduating from Spokane Public Schools, and the poor performance spurred a grass-roots effort to get the district back on track.

“This is what we consider our starting point,” said Joan Poirier, the district’s special programs supervisor. “It really became a community project.”

The district bolstered its partnerships with businesses and community groups, overhauling its methods for working with disadvantaged youths, Poirier said. As a result, the percentage of graduates in almost every socioeconomic category is now above the corresponding state average.

The biggest increases came among black, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander students; those with limited English skills; and those who come from poor families.

Among minority groups, black students graduated at the highest rate, nearly 80 percent, while American Indians graduated at the lowest rate, 60 percent. White students, who make up the largest group, still are graduating at the highest rate – nearly 86 percent.

While the rising graduation rate is reassuring, Poirier said, “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Helping students before they fail

One of the district’s more effective tools is a database called the Early Warning System, which tracks students’ behavior, grades and attendance, Poirier said. With this information and some tweaks to district policy, teachers and counselors can intervene quickly when a student is struggling.

Spokane Public Schools offers some classes through the On Track Academy, a more accessible option for students who don’t perform well in traditional classrooms. Until recently, however, the program was open only to students who had failed a class and needed to recoup credits.

“Before, they had to fail,” said Lorna Speare, the district’s early learning director.

Now, some students are pulled from problem classes partway through the school year to try On Track Academy.

Other students get a visit from their school’s Community Truancy Board when they have too many unexcused absences.

Each high school has a truancy board comprised of volunteers. The boards meet with students and parents to discuss what makes getting to school difficult, then offers potential solutions. The middle schools have similar panels called Community Attendance Support Teams.

“Students and parents were being sent to court if they had five or more absences in a month or 10 or more in a year,” said Christine Bruschle, who serves on the support team board at Glover Middle School. “The boards were an intervention.”

Bruschle sometimes uses support team meetings to connect students with the local branch of the YMCA, where she works as a teen program coordinator. Other volunteers include Boys and Girls Club staff, counselors and mental health experts.

“It’s not foolproof – we’re not going to help every family,” Bruschle said. “But it’s been helpful. There has been great success.”

Looking beyond the classroom

Standing in a swirl of children at the Northtown Boys and Girls Club, McIntyre, the Rogers senior, recalled a similar after-school program she attended at Whitman Elementary School.

“When I was young, I got to know the older kids,” she said. “It was like having an older sibling.”

McIntyre hopes to pass along her positive experience as an intern at the Northtown club, where academics are a high priority. She said the children often ask for help with their homework, without being prodded by club staff.

“The kids, they’re bright,” she said, recalling a weekday afternoon when she taught fractions by breaking a candy bar into various lengths. “But you have to intrigue them in certain subjects.”

With its growing focus on community partnerships, Spokane Public Schools is increasingly looking for ways to connect students with resources outside the classroom. McIntyre attended the Express day care program, which is hosted at the elementary schools, while other students, like Tsai Ross, went to the Boys and Girls Club.

Ross, another Rogers senior, said the staff at the Northtown club became his role models early in high school, when his father went to prison and his older brother joined the Marines. After spending much of his childhood there, the 18-year-old now pitches in as a volunteer.

“I’ve got to practice what I preach,” said Ross (pictured, above, with children in the play area of the Northtown Boys and Girls Club). “I can’t tell these kids they have to work in the classroom unless I’m doing it myself.”

When the kids aren’t romping around the clubhouse or outside on a green sports field, they often read and play educational computer games. Robert Bravato, the club director, said many of them don’t have the same opportunities at home.

Bravato said roughly 90 percent of the club’s members qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school. And every day at 4 p.m., the club offers them another late lunch.

“We also make sure they get a snack right before they go home, because we don’t know if they’ll get a snack at home,” he said.

Moving the finish line

Spokane Public Schools also has redoubled its efforts to prepare students for college.

“It’s not just about graduating,” said Poirier, the special programs supervisor. “It’s about graduating, and then what?”

Efforts have included a big spike in college field trips – 850 students toured a local campus last year. The district also has invested in college posters and pennants and college-focused events, Poirier said.

Ross looks forward to playing football at Lewis-Clark State College.

And after her internship at the Boys and Girls Club, McIntyre plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

“My chemistry teachers were the ones I was comfortable to talk to,” she said.

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