“If just one comes back, it’s worth it.”
Area educators have their hopes up that more than “just one” student who has dropped out will be encouraged this weekend to re-enroll in school.
On Saturday (Aug. 25), administrators, teachers and volunteers from several Benton and Washington county high schools plan to visit teens who didn’t return to school this year. The regional event, dubbed Reach Out NWA, is coordinated by the Northwest Arkansas Council. The aim is to determine why the students didn’t return and try to get them back in the classroom.
“If just one student comes back, it’s worth it,” said Michelle Markovich, principal of Mainstreet Academy, the alternative learning center of Siloam Springs High School. “The opportunity for a high school diploma is life changing for that one student.”
Siloam Springs piloted the outreach program last year, seeking 15 kids who had dropped out. They were able to contact eight teens and three of them returned to school. Markovich considers that day a success.
“Even if none of them came back, we would still do it because we need to know at the end of the day that we’ve exhausted every means of what we can do,” Markovich said. “The statistics don’t always measure up when you’re talking about a human life. It’s not just about the numbers.”
About 20 faculty, administrators, community volunteers and John Brown University students will be on hand Saturday in Siloam Springs.
It’s important to be able to take the effort to schools throughout the two-county region, said Kim Davis, Northwest Arkansas Council director of education and workforce development.
“I think it’s a powerful message for those students who’ve made the difficult choice to not return to school to emphasize the importance of education,” Davis said.
The cohesiveness of designating a day speaks loudly to the business community, shows support for families and stresses the importance of education, he said.
“Every school has done something along these lines. Let’s go ahead and on this one day do this. Educators are saying to families that what happens to your child matters,” Davis said. “By coalescing over this event at the beginning of school, it shows how badly we want them in school and how much they matter.”
Prairie Grove High School Principal Ron Bond said, “I think it’s a great idea. I believe a lot of kids just want someone to look at them and tell them they want them to be in school, tell them they’re worth it, and tell them there’s a way for them to get their high school diploma.”
Bond said his school plans to participate and his staff is checking for students who’ve failed to show. But, so far, no one is missing.
“If we identify any kids that are in that category, on Saturday I’m going to make contact with that student,” Bond said.
Bond said designating a day for area schools to woo back drop-outs is new, but the idea is not. He said school officials regularly contact and visit students who’ve stopped coming. At Prairie Grove, school officials and faculty try to be involved enough with students that they can intervene before the student actually leaves, Bond said.
Pete Joenks, Springdale High School principal, said his staff has been checking their student database this week and tracking down last-known addresses and telephone numbers. As of Thursday afternoon, they had between 100 to 120 students they were trying to locate in 10th through 12th grades.
Finding kids can be difficult, he said. Many students move frequently and phone numbers are more temporary than they used to be.
Several teachers and administrators will volunteer their time Saturday and Americorps personnel will be on hand to translate when needed, he said. “We’ll try to find out where they are and if we can come by and drop off information about getting back into school,” Joenks said.
Fayetteville High School Principal Steve Jacoby is scheduled to make three home visits Saturday morning, although officials there won’t be able to make a huge visitation push tomorrow due to the school’s construction schedule. Construction at the high school necessitates that the administration and counselors move into the new building Saturday. But teachers and staff have been identifying and visiting students for the past two weeks, Jacoby said.
“During the first week (Aug. 13-17), we made 37 home visits to families that were new to our district,” Jacoby said. Since then, they’ve been working on a list of 86 students whose whereabouts were uncertain. Through calls and personal visits, they’ve determined that many have moved and 17 students are obtaining a GED, he said. Officials are now working to find the final 30 or so.
“Our goal is to provide every opportunity for students to be successful,” Jacoby said. If there are financial or personal issues the student or their family can’t overcome on their own, school officials try to find alternatives to help the student.
“Often, they’ve given up on themselves and need encouragement,” Jacoby said.
Jacoby said FHS began last year to make a stronger push to bring back teens who’ve dropped out.
“It (FHS drop-out rate) has gone from 9 percent four years ago to 3.5 percent this past year,” Jacoby said. “Our goal this year is to bring it under 3 (percent). The key is in finding the students and for kids to know we care.”
Jacoby said the Small Learning Communities model implemented at the high school this fall is an effort, in part, to keep kids in school and improve graduation rates. The SLCs should help students feel more involved and allow teachers to get know students better, Jacoby said.
Bond said schools are getting better at diversifying to meet students’ needs, both academic and personal. When kids fall behind, they often stop trying altogether, he said.
“Sometimes, they’re just in survival mode and the value of a high school education gets lost to them when you’re just trying to survive and pay bills and life has happened to them. Lots of kids are in very difficult circumstances ,” Bond said. “Some things, issues, happen outside school walls that make school not a priority. Finding ways to overcome that is the big piece of the puzzle.”
Davis said he thinks the home visits can be insightful for the business community, as well. One of the most common reasons kids cite in not returning to school is a need to work to support themselves or help support their family, he said. Often, those work schedules interfere with school hours. “This gives us the opportunity to go to the employer and see if there’s some alternative,” Davis said, thus helping students keep an economic opportunity as well as returning to school.
A diploma will help students capitalize on economic opportunities later in life, Davis said. “This allows us to say, ‘We love you, you’re important, we want you back.’ We can identify gaps in the community so students can make that decision to go back to school.”
Siloam Springs has developed a more systemic approach in reaching out to drop-outs since piloting the program last year, Superintendent Ken Ramey said.
“We can’t wait until September or October,” Ramey said. “It has to be ongoing.”
Ramey said the district’s drop-out rate for the 2010-2011 school year was a low 2.2 percent. Still, the district would like to see all its students graduate, he said.
“Dropping out might cure an immediate need or situation, but the future’s not always just tomorrow or next week,” Ramey said.
As of Thursday afternoon, Ramey said about 20 teens had been identified as not having returned this semester out of 1,233 high school students.
The Reach Out NWA event is an effort to achieve an objective identified in the Greater Northwest Arkansas Regional Development Strategy, released in January 2011. The objective seeks to improve high school graduation and college matriculation rates.