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School drop-out rate rising

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” The number of students dropping out of school in Eagle County has steadily risen the past four years, and the district’s drop out rate is for the first time higher than the state average.

About 42 students between seventh and 12th grade dropped out of Eagle County schools during the 2003-2004 school year, according to the Colorado Department of Education. That number rose to 84 in 2005, 98 in 2006 and 136 in 2007.

The school district’s drop-out rate is now at 5.3 percent ” up from 1.9 percent in 2004. The state’s dropout rate is now 4.4 percent.



So, how do schools account for the rising dropout rate, and what are they doing to try and keep students in school?

One factor in Eagle County is the growing number of transient, working-class families living in the valley and looking for jobs, said Mike Gass, director of secondary education.



Families show up, stay a while, then leave. Sometimes they go to another resort area for work, or they go back to Mexico. Often, the school district has no way of knowing if the student enrolled in another school or just dropped out. It’s especially hard to know if a student moved out of the country.

And due to a change in how the state calculates drop-out rates, schools with high migrant populations will have higher drop-out rates than expected, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

“If we don’t know where they’re at, and if we can’t find out if they re-enrolled in school, that sort of counts against us, it’s counted as a dropout,” Gass said.



Most of the students dropping out of school, though, aren’t moving away ” they’re simply struggling at home.

“Many students have to help support their family or they have children and must support them,” said Wade Hill, principal at Red Hill Elementary.

Students start skipping school to work their second job, baby-sit their brothers and sisters or their own kids. Gass said there are 43 teen moms in the school district this year. Absences start to pile up, and it becomes harder and harder to catch up.

Poor grades and missed classes, especially when students are freshmen and sophomores, can lead to drop-outs later in high school, said Mark Strakbein, principal at Eagle Valley High School.

“When these students then become juniors and seniors, they say ‘Oh man, I have 14 credits to make up,’ and sometimes they feel it’s too late,” Strakbein said.

Eagle Valley High school has maintained an exceptionally low dropout rate ” 2.7 percent ” compared to other high schools in the district and the state.

It’s hard to pinpoint a specific program at the school that explains this ” it’s really about a philosophy that all the teachers there stick to, a philosophy that demands that they get to know their students and not let them fall through the cracks.

Teachers at Eagle Valley focus on making connections ” talking with students, making them feel missed when they aren’t there and pushing them to get involved.

If a student is failing a class, teachers will get them into tutoring. If students seem uninterested in school ” teachers and coaches will encourage them to join a team a team or club, Strakbein said.

“When freshman parents come in they ask, ‘What’s the No. 1 thing I can do to ensure my kids are OK?’ ” I say get them involved,” Strakbein said. “Kids who participate have higher attendance, higher GPAs and fewer referrals for discipline.”

In some cases, they’ll even use what they call a “silent intervention” program. If a student is struggling, teachers will get together, talk about it and try to help the student without him or her realizing it ” sort of an unintrusive form of counseling.

For students who are performing poorly in class ” the school does all it can to get the students into summer school so they can make up credits.

“We make it as mandatory as we can that they’re in summer school making up that credit, so when they do come around and get their act together, its not an unachievable goal to graduate ” it’s a climbable mountain so to speak,” Strakbein said.

The school district also relies on two alternative high schools to help kids who just can’t make it work at Eagle Valley or Battle Mountain.

The New America School, which opened last year in Gypsum, was started to specifically help high school kids who are either learning English as a second language or are fairly new to the country.

Red Canyon High School’s is an expeditionary learning school, which means classes are centered around focused, in-depth topics, and students spend weeks researching and debating every facet of those topics ” like nuclear war or elections.

Kids often drop out because their family doesn’t teach them the value of a diploma, Hill said. Classes at Red Canyon try to emphasize the practical things about education, showing them that what they do is both interesting and meaningful.

“We put a lot of energy into designing classes that are more engaging and meaningful for students so that they see class work as more authentic, hands on, meaningful and relevant to their lives,” Hill said.

And as at Eagle Valley High School, Red Canyon puts a big focus on building relationships with students.

“If they have someone they can relate to, student will build value and a desire to finish school,” Hill said.

Another way the district can keep kids in school is being diligent about enforcing truancy, Gass said.

When students aren’t showing up for school, phone calls are made, and if no one can be reached, that usually means a home visit, a knock on a door and some frank talk about why the kids need to be in school.

The school district will soon start working more closely with the Eagle Country courts to crack down on truancy and hold families accountable, Gass said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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