Crook County seeks solutions to poor freshman attendance

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: December 11. 2006 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Crook County High School Freshman Class President Josi Verity, 15, often has a hard time finding help for school events from people other than student government members.

Some students will stay to help clean up after dances, she said, but for many members of the freshman class, “it seems that they’re not very interactive with school stuff.”

“A lot of the freshmen, they kind of look up to the older kids and when the seniors and all them don’t come to school and class, or skip and stuff, they think (that’s) cool and so they will do the same stuff,” Josi said. “If they’re not involved with any activities or anything, they just don’t come.”

Administrators at Crook County High School are worried about the current crop of ninth-grade students, many of whom they say seem unmotivated and disconnected from school.

And in the ongoing look at the long-term structuring of Crook County schools, the school district is thinking about implementing what is known as a “freshman academy” system.

That sort of system would focus on building core skills and offering more individual attention during the first year of high school.

Principal Jim Golden said that the ninth-graders don’t have major disciplinary problems, like fighting or drugs, but their attendance rate is below the school’s standards and many aren’t engaged in school.

“We don’t have very many behavioral problems with them, they’re just not a very motivated bunch of kids,” Golden said. “There are some very highly motivated and highly talented kids in the class, but as a group of 242 kids, they are not the most motivated group I’ve worked with.”

Golden said the daily attendance rate for the class so far this year is 90 percent, which is down from last year and below the school’s goal of 92 percent. Darcy Bedortha, the school’s attendance secretary, said there is a group of students who frequently misses school and may be in danger of dropping out.

“As a class, our seniors are probably worse, but these freshmen are tough,” Bedortha said. “And it isn’t all of them, it’s just a lot of them, too many – one is too many.”

Bedortha said she used to work in an elementary school, and she thinks that many students lose their connection to school life some time between middle and high school. District Superintendent Steve Swisher said he noticed a similar issue with ninth-graders when he was a teacher, but he thinks the problem is worsening.

“I’ve observed that pattern myself personally as a teacher, and over time we’ve tried different innovations, but really getting the freshmen students settled into the school is an important issue, and maybe more important now than ever,” Swisher said. “We’re losing kids at the freshman level, but we shouldn’t.”

Currently, the school district’s Facilities Committee is conducting an overall review of the setup of the different school buildings. The committee’s report, which Swisher said should be ready by April or May, will include recommendations about the organization of grades.

Swisher said that one of the ideas the committee is considering is the “freshman academy,” where students focus more on basic literacy and math skills and spend more time every day with one teacher.

“It’s basically to reduce the handoffs – a group of freshmen may have language arts, social studies and half of a day might be associated with one teacher,” Swisher said. “The kind of important basic skill stuff, literacy stuff, is attended to at the freshman level, so then at sophomore year (and) farther down the road everyone’s guaranteed to have this basic core line of knowledge.”

This fall, Crook County High School began implementing one aspect of that idea, fostering more interaction between students and teachers through a daily “Student Connections” period. During the class, groups of about 16 to 20 students meet with a teacher who is supposed to act as a mentor and spend more one-on-one time with the students.

Golden said that the new class, which all students in grades nine through 12 attend, is geared both toward the freshman class and toward meeting the increased graduation requirements.

“The whole idea behind Connections is to mentor, monitor and motivate kids to succeed,” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift for teachers, it’s an added responsibility and I realize that, so it’s going to take a few years to get this really working like I want to see it working.”

Brian Lemos, the vice principal at Crook County High School, who is in charge of discipline, said that administrators are trying to come up with more creative ways of encouraging students to come to school.

“We’re continuously trying to figure out ways that we can motivate kids to be here,” Lemos said. “We’re taking the consequence approach; now we’re revisiting that and saying, ‘Maybe we need to look at rewarding kids for being here.'”

Last week, Golden said, he held an assembly with the ninth-grade students to discuss attendance and sent a letter home to parents.

“Hopefully that will begin the process of making them aware,” he said. “I’m concerned, there’s no doubt about it.”

Lemos is also the principal of Pioneer High School, an alternative high school for those in danger of dropping out. Pioneer currently has 69 students, only four of whom are freshmen. He said the number of freshmen is low because the goal is to keep younger students in a traditional high school environment.

Overall, the district’s dropout rate is down, from 9 percent two years ago to 5 percent in the most recent data, according to Swisher.

Bedortha said she thinks the freshman academy idea is interesting, but she is not sure what the solution is to the attendance problem.

“It’s hard to see them struggle and we just can’t connect them, we can’t make them want to be here and I don’t know what the answer is,” she said. “We need to get them excited about learning again because we can’t discipline them into coming.”

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