By Jennifer Wohlleb
If the Alliance for Excellent Education is correct, the 1.3 million students in the class of 2010 who dropped out could have increased their lifetime earnings by $337 billion if they had graduated from high school. They also would have been healthier and less prone to criminal activities.
With those statistics in mind, Taylor County Schools leaders decided to make at-risk students a priority, leading to the creation in 2009 of the district’s Zero-Percent Drop-Out Policy.
“The key to having zero dropouts is pretty easy,” Superintendent Roger Cook said. “‘Just say no’ and be able to provide them with some alternatives they can live with.”
Photo: Taylor County Virtual Charter School Principal Dr. William Mattingly checks with Nick Lyons to see if he needs any assistance with his work.
The successful policy resulted in no dropouts since 2009, and now has led to Taylor County’s selection as KSBA’s fall 2011 PEAK (Public Education Achieves in Kentucky) Award recipient.
“I am sure there will come a time that no matter what we do someone will want to dropout but for now for the past three years we have been able to avoid it by offering them other alternatives,” Cook said. “Early detection is also the key; students who are potential dropout risks can be identified in the elementary school ... if you can target them early and stay on them it is possible to find a niche for them before it is too late.”
To keep students in school and successful, their needs are considered individually and solutions to keep them in school vary and include providing a computer and Internet access so students can work from home, enrolling them in the district’s virtual high school (please see sidebar for more information), and allowing students to straddle the academic and working worlds during the school day.
“When guidance counselors receive word that a student wants to drop out, the students and parents are sent to meet with Superintendent Roger Cook,” wrote Shannon Clark, district grant writer and public relations coordinator. “He shows them a video of the consequences of not receiving a high school diploma. Then he speaks with the students and parents about the reasons they want to drop out and offers alternative options.”
That was the case for one senior who considered dropping out halfway through the fall semester because he needed a job, but instead was enrolled in the virtual charter school.
“I like doing this because I get out of school a little earlier and go to work,” he wrote. “I help on a farm three days a week. I get more individualized attention in the virtual charter school. I am set to graduate in May 2012.”
He said he decided graduation was the better path and now plans to pursue certification to become an electrician.
“I was struggling in a regular classroom setting and now that I am in the virtual charter school, I am more comfortable, more successful and more confident to pursue my goals,” he said.
The zero-percent policy is aimed at students in all grade levels. Clark wrote that each school runs a weekly watch list for struggling students and those with poor attendance. The school counselor is contacted first and a number of interventions can be put in place based on the student’s needs. Those might include a home visit or support from the family resource center for basic needs.
At-risk students may also become members of the superintendent’s Cook’s Kids group.
“Each student is given a leadership role within their school and Mr. Cook organizes leadership training and educational enrichment opportunities,” Clark wrote.
The Taylor County Board of Education has been supportive of the program, approving funds for among other things, the technology for the virtual charter high school, home hospital services to provide biweekly teacher instruction/home visits for ill and pregnant students and funding for Cook’s Kids.
The district has also used several grants to hire a dropout specialist, to purchase technology for homebound or homeless students, to create a co-op program where at-risk students can receive elective credits for job experience, and to provide basic needs for students through the family resource center.
Virtual high school teacher Shane Cox said a student he had worked with two years ago exemplifies why this program works. After two years at another high school the student had only two credits when he enrolled at Taylor County. Within two years, the student had recovered those lost credits and was able to graduate on time.
“That student shared with me on the day of graduation that he had never seen a school staff care so much about their students or be so willing to go the extra mile to make sure that each student had everything needed to be successful,” Cox wrote. “Today, that student is attending technical college pursuing a degree in diesel mechanics.”
In addition to the zero-percent dropout rate, Taylor County High School’s graduation rate was among the top 15 in the state in 2010, at 89.78 percent. The state average was 76.68 percent.
This is the third time Cook has been involved in a PEAK-winning education program. The first time was in 2000 as principal of Russell County High School. Cook was superintendent of Russellville Independent Schools when the district was honored in 2008.
The PEAK Award was established in 1997 to focus statewide attention on outstanding public school efforts aimed specifically at enhancing student learning skills and, in doing so, to promote the positive impact of public elementary and secondary education in Kentucky.
— The nomination deadline for the spring PEAK Award is March 12. For more information, click here.