The Dropout Report: Leading the way
Just like many urban school districts, Tulsa Public Schools is dealing with a dropout problem. But with some innovative thinking across the education spectrum, TPS is poised to enact changes that will make a difference for students.
It took two stints in prison for Leesa Crawford to earn her GED.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to learn. She always had the drive, but she also had faced obstacles. First, she ran away from home at age 11 and was raped. The emotional ramifications of that experience caused her to act out in school, get in fights and use drugs and alcohol, “anything to avoid feeling the pain of the rape,” she says.
Eventually, the fighting became so severe that she was pulled out of school and referred to the Lakeside Residential Home, a non-secured treatment facility operated by the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau. During her six months there, she received formal schooling, but by the end of her stay, she felt alternative school would be a better fit, so she enrolled in Project 12, an alternative high school program operated by Tulsa Public Schools.
Things were looking up for Crawford, but then she totaled her mom’s car. Crawford says she had “9,000 excuses” why she couldn’t take the bus, so “I dropped out again and never went back.”
Then 15, she looked into earning her GED, but testing revealed she had only a fourth-grade math proficiency and her other subjects were at just a seventh- or eighth-grade level.
“That scared me to death,” she says. “I didn’t see no end. … I had no clue how to go about it, and I felt like I was so far behind … I felt like I wasn’t worthy; I’m never going to make anything of myself — all those things I told myself because I somehow felt like I deserved it, I put myself in that position, so therefore I never saw a way out for a long, long time.”
It wasn’t long before Crawford found herself in prison. There, however, she had structure, she had peers with the same goals and she had teachers who could provide her with the one-on-one attention she craved.
“Of course, I never did,” she says. “I went back to the same lifestyle.”
By her second stay in prison, she began classes again and, after two years, earned her high school equivalency. She remembers the emotion of that moment vividly — putting her face in her shirt and crying all the tears she had. She immediately called her then-teenage son, remembering the times she couldn’t help him with his homework because she had not completed her education.
“That is how big of an impact (it was), and it carried for him all the way from sixth grade to where he was,” she says. “And so I saw, right there, what my not getting an education had done to my son, had done to me, and now I’m putting away funds for my grandson, who’s 4, so he’ll have an education.”
Crawford now has a job, one that supports her and her grandson (her son has since passed away), at Resonance Center for Women Inc., which assisted with her prison transition and has helped pay for some college classes.
Crawford’s message is clear: Finish high school. She is convinced that if she had received structure, individualized instruction and especially mentors as a youth, she would not have spent seven years in prison.
“I think that would have been a life-changer for me,” she says.
One of thousandsCrawford is not alone in her struggles. Currently, 8,000 young people in Tulsa County between ages 18-22 do not have a high school diploma, most of whom are economically disadvantaged, according to Keith Ballard, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools.
Statewide, 5,214 students failed to graduate from Oklahoma high schools last year, according to the State Department of Education’s 2008 Dropout Report.
And nationally, a student drops out of one of America’s high schools every 26 seconds, amounting to more than 1.1 million students per year, according to America’s Promise Alliance.
And while Tulsa Public Schools’ graduation rate increased to 69.4 percent in 2008, an improvement from the 58.2 percent rate in 2007, community leaders say 258 dropouts (as of October 2008) is still too many. Additionally, Tulsa ranks 12th in the nation in the disparity of graduation rates between urban and suburban students.
In the last few years, the dropout crisis has drawn national attention and concern. To increase awareness, America’s Promise Alliance began hosting dropout summits in the top 50 cities across the country, inviting educators, school administrators, community organizations and the general public to begin developing solutions.
Tulsa hosted one of these summits in fall 2008. Gathering at The University of Tulsa, leaders from Tulsa, Jenks and Union public schools shared their success stories and challenges, and students expressed their ideas for creating schools where their peers want to stay and graduate. Delegates from a variety of organizations joined in the dialogue, too, offering ways for the public to step in as mentors, Partners in Education, service providers and other roles in an effort to reduce the number of Tulsa high school dropouts.
The enthusiasm the summit drummed up was promising, but much work remains to be done.
To improve its dropout and graduation rates, and keep students engaged in school, Tulsa Public Schools is developing innovative ways to change the way education is offered to students.
The district developed a School Innovations Task Force to rethink its alternative school offerings, increasing space for students in these programs and introducing new models, such as Big Picture Schools and the TRAICE Academy and satellites.
The district is considering other new options as well: expanding the elementary community-schools model to secondary schools, developing new magnet programs and internships, and instituting ninth-grade academies — all in an effort to meet students where they are and make school relevant and interesting.
City impactTulsa’s dropout rate had been on city leaders’ radar for two years prior to the America’s Promise dropout summit, says Monroe Nichols, assistant to the mayor for education and community development. He says Mayor Kathy Taylor had already begun forming a team to address means to decrease dropouts in the city, including developing the BluePrints for Building Futures program. Now called YouthBuild, it is a Tulsa Technology Center program designed to allow opportunities for at-risk students to complete their GED while getting work experience on construction job sites.
So, when a letter arrived in spring 2008 from America’s Promise, Nichols says city and educational leaders from Tulsa Public Schools, Union and Jenks were more than willing to coordinate the event and build on already existing momentum. Now that the summit is complete, task forces are forming, a report has been released and leaders are looking for regional solutions.
“This is not a TPS problem,” Nichols says. “It’s definitely a Tulsa problem. And even as we begin to work on some of the solutions and programs, we’ve really worked to make it more citywide and countywide in focus because we definitely understand, in this community in particular, we’re very interdependent — what goes on in one place will definitely affect another. If we’re not graduating kids and sending them to the workforce and higher ed in Tulsa, it’s definitely going to affect Broken Arrow … or Jenks.”
These solutions include a variety of approaches to help supplement the work being done in schools. One example: partnering career coaches in the Workforce Tulsa program with graduation coaches in schools to help students create a link between academics and future jobs.
The mayor also continues her focus on mentorship. Through Taylor’s Mentoring to the Max initiative, started in 2007, the city partnered with 41 local mentoring organizations to recruit mentors and create 18 after-school programs at local elementary schools. Currently, efforts are aimed at finding mentors for the eighth- and ninth-grade years — when the majority of students decide whether to complete high school.
“We’re really working on that transitional year to propel them to the 10th grade,” Nichols says. “Usually you get to the 10th or 11th grade and you’re going to go ahead and stick it out.”
City officials also recognize the importance of helping students see the link between education and the workforce.
A three-week work readiness camp offers workshops on appropriate dress, conflict resolution, financial management and other topics, Nichols says, which transitions into a paid internship (funded by city economic stimulus funds) at various local companies. On Fridays, the students visit Oklahoma college campuses. If older students desire to earn their certification, the program also makes that possible.
“We’re really working on making that direct connection between education and the workforce and giving them that experience so they can make an educated decision,” Nichols says. “It all goes back to allowing them to make a decision they can commit to and something that they’d like to do.”
Encouraging students to earn their high school diploma affects the city as a whole, Nichols says.
A high dropout rate has an impact on public safety, the amount of taxpayer dollars devoted to prisons and government assistance and whether companies decide to locate in Tulsa, as local students could be potential employees. Nationally, the stakes are equally high — with the U.S. poised to become the world’s center of innovation and research, kids must graduate from high school to be successful.
“We are at such a crossroads, from the future of our economy to the future of our education system to the future of our standing in the world — all that’s at stake,” Nichols says.
Creating 21st century schools
Nowhere is this problem more evident than in Tulsa Public Schools (TPS). The highly urban district is facing many of the same challenges as others across the country — increased mobility among families, poverty, changing demographics and rising numbers of English language learners.
Currently, officials estimate the district’s dropout rate at 2.7 percent, or 258 students, which is calculated by dividing the number of all grade 9-12 students who drop out by the grade 9-12 membership. The expected graduation rate is 69.4 percent, with all high schools appearing to achieve the graduation rate state target of 67.8 percent for this reporting period. However, there is some disagreement as to how the graduation rate is actually calculated.
A new database program called PowerSchool promises to improve tracking. Also, schools are making efforts to better update their records.
More importantly, TPS is working to create a district where students want to attend school.
This includes the district’s newly implemented magnet programs, interest-based instruction at four TPS high schools — a fine and performing arts magnet at Central; scientific and technological utilization at McLain; restaurant, lodging and health management at Hale; and broadcasting and digital media at Webster, as well as a potential health and community wellness focus at Will Rogers.
This focus on interest-based learning represents a shift toward skill- versus knowledge-based learning, says Kevin Burr, the district’s executive director for high school reform. Schools cannot be expected to teach students everything in a world where knowledge is expanding at an ever-increasing pace, he says. What’s important, he says, is teaching them the skills they need to be prepared for college, the workforce or both.
Nationally, 63 percent of students graduate high school and, of those, 65 percent require remedial classes in college. Additionally, Burr says, 39 percent of professors say students don’t have the skills necessary to be successful in college, and employers say 33 percent of students don’t have the skill sets necessary to obtain work.
“It’s stupid for us to try to get kids to know everything,” he says. “We need to give them the skills and test them on the skills to be able to access the knowledge and then recognize when they access it whether it’s real or relevant or not.”
While a magnet school student may not pursue a career in cooking or broadcasting, the programs equip them with the skills necessary for a career in general, such as timeliness, responsibility and collaboration, Burr says.
In today’s world, students are coming to school with an in-depth knowledge of and experience with technology, which causes them to seek an environment that is collaborative and connected, Burr says.
Instead, “What we tend to do is we say, ‘We don’t want you to collaborate,’” Burr says. “‘You need to sit in isolation and learn this stuff at my rate, because I’m the one in control.’”
These educational experiences have other extensions, such as internships, allowing students to demonstrate the skills they have learned and receive credit for their work.
Superintendent Ballard also emphasizes the importance of these skill-based programs, noting that the magnet programs give students a reason for coming to school, whether they are interest- or academic-based, such as the programs at Edison Preparatory School or Booker T. Washington High School.
“One way to get past the graduation rate problem is to give kids the tools they need in order to be successful at the next level and to strongly encourage kids to move on to community college or to move on to technology (programs) or to move on to college,” he says. “We need to be very, very focused on our college preparation and our college-going rate.”
Burr expects that not everyone will share the enthusiasm for these ideas, and TPS will have to convince some parents and teachers. But in order to make a difference, and show kids why education is relevant, the “100-year-old traditional high school model” needs to change, he says.
The essence of the problem, says H.J. Green, deputy superintendent for operations and high school reform, is that students who were turned off by school once had other options, such as industrial or factory jobs, and could earn a healthy living. Now that the United States has shifted from an industrial- to an innovation-based economy, “that’s all changed, so those students are out there on the streets,” he says.
As a result, what is now required of an entry-level employee is the same as what is required for college, Burr says, so TPS must work to offer more choices for students with different learning styles, as well as opportunities for them to earn credits in nontraditional ways, at nontraditional hours.
The approach is comparable to a multi-lane highway, Green says, where the objective is for students to end their high school years ready for college or a career.
“Different students take different routes, but it’s all going the same way,” he says. “ … One will go the traditional way and one will not, but there are other lanes and other paths to accomplishing their goals.”
Burr also finds comfort in the fact that the district is making bold strides toward creating new and appropriate options for students.
“We’re coming to grips with the fact that we cannot keep doing what we’ve always done, that we must do something dramatically different,” he says. “I cannot emphasize that enough … If we continue to follow a traditional model, we will most certainly fail.”
Until recently, TPS could count any student who graduated during that particular year as an official graduate in district reports, including older students who returned to complete graduation credits, says Kevin Burr, the district’s executive director for high school reform.
However, in 2008, the state began requiring that districts calculate graduation rates counting only students who graduated within a four-year timeline. Those students are then divided by 1) all graduates, including those who took more than four years; 2) dropouts in the four-year cohort; and 3) those who earn a GED, who are counted as dropouts.
“Basically, the four-year piece came out of No Child Left Behind because they wanted something that was easy to measure and accurate, but it’s not accurate,” Burr says. “That’s not the graduation rate,” because it doesn’t count students who transfer out of state and to other special situations, such as a switch to private or homeschooling. These students are not always accounted for, which means they could be classified as dropouts.
A traditional model certainly does not describe the changes occurring at Will Rogers High School.
The pivotal ninth grade
The high school enjoys a long and storied past with striking art deco architecture and such notable alumni as author S.E. Hinton, singer Anita Bryant, football coach Dave Rader, former Tulsa Mayor Rodger Randle, musician Leon Russell and actor Gailard Sartain.
In recent years, though, Will Rogers, like the TPS district, has faced challenges. The school’s demographics have changed substantially since the 1950s and 1960s, with the primarily Caucasian student body shifting to a minority-majority population: 31 percent Hispanic, 31 percent African American, 24 percent Caucasian and 13 percent Native American. Additionally, about 18 percent of the students are English language learners, 87 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch and the student mobility rate is high.
What most troubles school administrators, such as Principal Lyda Wilbur, though, is the apathy that has come to pervade students, a microcosm of the apathy that pervades society in general, she says.
When students come from such highly mobile families, switching from apartment complex to apartment complex in order to take advantage of the free first month of rent, developing any kind of long-term plan is a challenge, let alone planning for college or a career.
So Will Rogers has developed an innovative approach to help engage students and pave the way to academic success.
When entering the large two-story building located just next door to the main Will Rogers High School, students pass under a covered walkway with such messages as: “I will go to college because I went to class today,” “I will learn something new today” and “I will make myself better today than yesterday.” When they walk through the doors, they enter the Will Rogers Freshman Academy, a program designed to help encourage students during that pivotal ninth-grade year.
Wilbur says the Freshman Academy, beginning its fourth year, is a “small learning community,” a group of 300 students who participate in their own Career Day with members of the community, have their own Parents’ Night, take field trips to local businesses to observe workers in action and cultivate their own outdoor classroom. The Freshman Academy also features its own director (Teresa Pena), special education teacher, dean of students and counselors, who work to stay in touch with students who are truant or have excessive absences to curtail dropping out before it occurs.
“It works (in that we’re) really getting to know each other,” says Wilbur, who formerly served as Freshman Academy director. “ … The whole environment in this building is so much different from the one in the main building. When you’re working with about 300 students and 30 staff members and one administrator that looks out for them, with the dean and counselors, you can make that a small learning environment.”
Ballard praises Will Rogers as a model for serving ninth-grade students, and notes that Memorial, Webster and East Central high schools also are planning to implement freshman academies for the coming school year.
Will Rogers also is taking an active approach to continuing to improve its model, such as adding “pavilions,” interest-based programs based on community justice and social services through which students can explore careers, and developing small teams of teachers to improve professional development and increase community involvement. The school also is moving toward creating small learning communities in the main high school building.
Another element unique to the school: Kim Piper, the Will Rogers school, family and community liaison. She helps work with community partners, such as Williams, the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa, Resonance, the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Gear Up. The school also is striving to make connections with even more community partners.
“All of these different things are active, are people who together can make a difference,” Wilbur says. “Together we can keep students from dropping out of school.”
Highly challenged, high performingThe community focus taking hold at Will Rogers has been present at Marshall Elementary School for 10 years.
This school represents an anomaly in education: It is highly challenged yet also high performing.
At Marshall, much like Rogers, 86 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 55 percent come from families where English is not the primary language and the school serves an area with primarily multi-family dwellings, resulting in high mobility.
Even so, Marshall has continually posted high test scores — an accomplishment Principal Kayla Robinson attributes to improved conditions for learning made possible by both community partners and school-based services.
A decade ago, Marshall, along with several other TPS elementary schools, such as Kendall-Whittier, Mark Twain and Eugene Field, began investigating a new model of education called “community schools.” Intrigued, they visited a few such schools and, having seen their success, they “came back with a sense that this was the right thing to do,” Robinson says.
Then the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa introduced the school administrators to the National Community Schools Initiative, which gave the schools the support they needed to begin recruiting partners.
In all, these and other community partners logged more than 2,000 volunteer hours at Marshall during the 2008-2009 school year.
Being a community school also means increased access for the school’s families. Marshall opens every weekday at 7:30 a.m.; the after-school clinic and after-school program remain open until 5 p.m.; and evening activities, such as family dinners, are often offered until 8 p.m.
In Marshall’s success, though, also comes a disparity. While achievement is high for the kindergarten through fifth-graders, test scores decline dramatically when students hit sixth grade, Robinson says. These students’ physical needs also seem to go unmet.
Because Upward Bound is only available to elementary students, older students often seek out the Marshall gym for after-school recreation. She also has seen these students hungry and in need of coats, the same needs community partners meet for her younger students.
“How could you not draw the conclusion somewhere that (student success) has to do with the conditions for learning?” Robinson says. “We have to step back and ask the question, what is it that changes when that child enters sixth grade? What is it the school is going to have to do both in terms of instruction and also conditions for learning?”
Robinson says efforts are being made to extend the community school concept to older students, such as school-based mental health services and positive behavior supports being offered at the feeder middle school, Nimitz, and high school, Memorial. What will ultimately be necessary for these community services to continue to expand, though, is parents demanding it so that their students can continue to be successful.
“The bottom line is, the purpose of community schools and the school reform model is to see kids graduate,” Robinson says. “That’s what we are all about. The elementary model is College 101.”
Alternative approachesWhat is clear, and what district officials, community groups and city leaders have echoed, is that Tulsa Public Schools has assembled a team dedicated to thinking boldly and devising new approaches to education that meet the needs of all students.
This was evident in the Alternative Schools Innovations Task Force, a group of initially 70 and then 124 district and external partners assembled to rethink what the district does as far as education, Assistant Superintendent Marvin Jeter says. The group split into eight different task teams to evaluate the results of a recent district audit and collect input from teachers, administrators, parents and students, as well as research new educational practices that might be a good fit for the district.
Out of that work arose multiple new initiatives TPS plans to implement in the fall semester, including:
- Tulsa Resource and Adolescent Intervention Centers of Excellence (TRAICE) satellites, which replace in-school suspension;
- The TRAICE Academy, replacing the Tulsa Academic Center (TAC);
- A continuation school for adjudicated youth in partnership with the Tulsa County Juvenile Bureau;
- A Middle College High School program for potential first-generation college students in partnership with Tulsa Community College;
- Big Picture programs at the former Franklin and Project 12 alternative schools.
These options all reflect TPS’ desire to become a district of choice.
“What we want to do as a district is reinvent ourselves as a 21st century district, where we’re truly providing whatever students need to be successful,” Jeter says. “And that may look like traditional settings … but it may look like a variety of other things based on their needs as well as their situation in life.”
Those situations in life can have a great impact on students’ success, he says. For example, if students have behavioral problems, they might be misbehaving because they are behind academically and don’t know how to catch up. Students also could be facing mental health challenges, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, an unstable home life or a variety of other factors.
The district is working to find ways to identify these needs and create programs that meet students where they are.
- A school-within-a-school approach, creating Big Picture- and Street School- inspired programs within traditional secondary schools;
- Implementing Big Picture programs in elementary schools, resulting in a possible kindergarten-through-12th-grade trajectory;
- Further increasing alternative school capacity (TPS is adding space for 2,000 more students in the fall and would like to reach 8,000 students by 2014).
Another significant change for the district: the introduction of the Teach for America program, which will result in at least 50 of the nation’s top college graduates, highly trained in working in an urban setting, making their way to Tulsa to have an impact on local students in the city’s highest-need schools. Fifty additional teachers will arrive in each of the following two years.
Ballard is pleased with the changes that have taken place in the district and is optimistic for continued improvement. He says that no matter the means of ensuring student success, from Big Picture programs to TRAICE to magnet schools, all district programs must be traveling on the same road to encouraging student success.
“We need an alternative for every child, and the alternative can’t be to go to the street,” he says. “ … We need to care deeply about every single child. We must treat every single child as though they are a precious resource because they are, and we must cling to every one of them.”