The Dropout Report: Making progress
Many efforts are in the works to improve Tulsa’s schools and graduation rates. The following initiatives are examples that show the district may be on the right track.
High school magnet programs
Thanks to a $12 million grant, Tulsa’s magnet programs are matching students’ instruction with their interests in culinary and fine arts, aerospace and aeronautics, journalism and engineering.
The magnet programs at Central, Nathan Hale, Daniel Webster and McLain high schools are designed to help students see the relevance of what they’re learning by incorporating theme-based projects throughout the curriculum, says Donna Carter, arts management strand coordinator at Central, TPS’ fine arts magnet.
In English class, for example, Central students learn about language and the rhythm of poetry through African drumming. In geology, students create stained glass as a tool for learning about the properties of glass.
Central students also are encouraged to participate in artistic opportunities and a series of hands-on experiences, including internships and job shadowing.
With the latest technology, all four magnet programs also partner with community businesses within their industry focus. Broadcasting and digital media magnet Webster has connected with the Tulsa County News to allow students to write and submit articles to the westside newspaper. The magnet’s journalism-based, product-driven courses teach students problem-solving skills and provide collaborative experiences that will aid them in college or the workforce, says Phil Garland, former Webster principal and current lead principal at TPS’ new continuation school.
While TPS’ magnet programs are motivating students to finish high school, they also are providing them with the skills to identify and meet their post-high school goals, says Kevin Burr, executive director for high school reform.
“We want to use that curriculum interest to help keep them walking through the door,” he says. “We’re using kids’ interest areas to give them a set of skills to become whatever they want.”
Middle school initiatives
TPS also is helping students set their sights on success at the middle school level, a crucial time for youth, who can become subject to the cliques, bullying and gossip that often come with the pre-teen years.
John Maxwell, Cleveland Middle School principal, says many middle school students get involved with gangs and criminal activity as early as the sixth grade, which can lead to dropping out later. According to research conducted by the Tulsa World, Cleveland had the second-highest dropout rate, 3.4 percent, of any TPS middle school for the 2006-2007 school year.
Maxwell notes that students who have a caring principal and school staff stand a better chance at staying in school. Like other TPS middle schools, Cleveland offers special counseling support for “troubled” students as well as drug prevention and tutoring programs. The school also hosts guest speakers who share possible career opportunities with students.
“The more we can expose them to college and what’s beyond high school, the better,” says Maxwell, who adds that Cleveland counselors help students identify possible academic or career interests in sixth grade.
With several high school magnet programs off the ground and more to come, Burr hopes this early career path information can be even better utilized to keep students academically motivated via their interests.
“If we can use that inherent interest that already exists, we should be able to suggest that kids go to a high school that matches that interest,” he says.
The Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative (TASCI) identifies schools’ needs and partners them with local services in seven core areas. This privately funded resource center oversees Tulsa’s 18 recognized community schools, all elementary schools, and helps address the basic physical, mental and emotional needs of young people and their families.
Through a senior nutrition program, TASCI and its local partners have connected senior citizens with students at several community schools, where the seniors receive meals and become student mentors. Another TASCI program, the Summer SOAR Enrichment Program, provides educational trips, recreational activities and free meals each summer for 60 children at McKinley Elementary School.
TASCI hopes to help Tulsa’s schools become the vehicles, or “hubs,” that align communities and impact the success of youth, TASCI Senior Planner Jan Creveling says.
She points out that long-standing community schools in Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities have helped improve dropout rates by meeting the basic needs of at-risk youth and connecting them with caring adults for stability and encouragement. The goal of TASCI is to do the same in Tulsa.
“We know that kids who are healthy are more capable of learning,” Creveling says. “We work to ensure that nonacademic barriers are removed so schools can do what they do best.”
Alternative education programs
Working from the recommendations of the Alternative Schools Innovations Task Force, the Tulsa school board voted in June to make several changes and additions to TPS’ alternative education programs. At press time, the task force planned to implement the following changes for the 2009-2010 academic year:
- Project 12 and Franklin Youth Academy will be renamed and reinvented under the umbrella of Big Picture Learning, an international network of schools that boasts impressive graduation statistics. The concept focuses on getting to know students and their interests and then connecting them with relevant learning experiences. Nearly all students attending Big Picture Learning schools graduate high school, attend college and complete a four-year degree program on time, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marvin Jeter says.
- “Our concern was that even though our programs were successful, these proven success rates were even better,” he explains. “As long as one kid is falling through the crack, that’s one too many.”
- The redesign also will absorb New Vision Academy, which previously served students abusing drugs or alcohol. Now each of TPS’ alternative schools will encompass substance use and social issues, while also focusing on “educating the whole child” and teaching around students’ interests, Jeter explains.
- Tulsa Academic Center will be renamed the Tulsa Resource and Adolescent Intervention Centers of Excellence (TRAICE) Academy. Students will be grouped based on the severity of their behavioral problems, and staff will receive extensive training on how to help students overcome these issues.
- TRAICE satellite programs will replace in-school suspension programs at every middle and high school. Students in jail or on probation will attend a new “continuation school” through a partnership with juvenile justice authorities.
- The Project ACCEPT program, which encourages collaboration across educational disciplines, will be expanded beyond its current location at Anderson Elementary School.
- The Middle College High School will be created in partnership with Tulsa Community College to allow students to earn their high school diploma and college associate’s degrees simultaneously. This program also will work in conjunction with a “virtual high school” — a means of earning class credits online — which will serve 500 students in middle school, high school and post-secondary education the first year.
Tulsa Learning Academy
Tulsa Learning Academy (TLA) helps at-risk students complete courses they need for graduation online and at their own pace. The program has an unlikely but teen-friendly setting: Promenade Mall.
Many students enter TLA because of eating disorders, family tragedies or financial troubles, Principal Jean Keeton says.
“These kids are smart and very talented, but life crises have happened to them and they had no place to go for support,” she says.
With instructors on hand, TLA also offers counseling and workshops to students and provides them with job shadowing and field trips to introduce post-graduation possibilities.
“We look at the whole student, not just the academic part,” Keeton says. “We accept them, meet with them, work with them and figure out how to support them to help them be successful.”
TLA offers daytime and evening classes and last year accommodated about 23 students per session. However, Jeter says the Tulsa school board plans to expand the program to help twice as many students and allow many to gain high school credits from their home computers.
explains. One former student attended TLA to recapture credits lost when his family’s home and cars were repossessed.
Tulsa Center for Adolescent Treatment
Open since 2002, the Tulsa Center for Adolescent Treatment at Parkside Psychiatric Hospital temporarily houses teens suffering from mental illness, provides them with treatment and counseling, and manages any necessary medications.
Through TPS, the program also pairs patients with an on-site, certified teacher, who obtains their school records and prepares individualized assignments to ensure they stay on track academically.
“We often find that a child hasn’t been in school for a few years and that they’re way behind,” Clinic Director Kathryn Bishop says. “If they’re in need of medication and don’t have it, it can be really difficult for a child to concentrate. If they’re depressed, they’ll have difficulty caring one way or another about school.”
During patients’ clinic stay, which averages one month, speakers from local colleges also visit to discuss career options. Once students’ treatment is over, the center refers them for outpatient treatment and ensures they are enrolled in an alternative or traditional school program.