School helps dropouts get back on track

Program in Phoenix succeeds by getting up close and personal with at-risk kids.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Math class was so tough for Chris Murillo that he was close to dropping out of high school.

Jacinda Chapa already had.

But today, instead being tallied in dropout statistics, the two count themselves as college-bound successes.

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Ms. Chapa heads her student government, and Mr. Murillo is pulling a "B" in geometry.

"I'm gonna study fire-science," he says. "I'd love to be a firefighter."

Their second start is happening at an experimental public school focused wholly on at-risk youths.

Emphasizing consistent, personal attention - ranging from tutoring to anger management - Bostrom Alternative Center may offer clues to how school districts nationwide can battle the longstanding dropout challenge.

An upbeat learning outpost in an otherwise dreary neighborhood of warehouses and auto shops near downtown Phoenix, Bostrom serves about 300 students who volunteer for the program.

Math-score makeovers

As Chapa found, just coming to a new school labeled "alternative" was no guarantee of success. After failing an algebra test, she was weeping in the hallway when a teacher coaxed her back to class. "I thought, 'wow, she really cared,' " Chapa says. "And I ended up passing that class with a B."

Murillo had a similar experience when his math problems resurfaced here at Bostrom. "My teacher wouldn't let me quit. He said, 'Just keep on trying.' So I started staying after school and studying more, and my grades started rising."

Bostrom is a showcase for the Phoenix Union School District's extensive student-retention efforts. Through tireless outreach and mentoring programs, the 23,000-student district has trimmed its dropout rates from 18 percent down to 8.6 percent in six years - an impressive achievement in a state that currently ranks last in the nation for dropout prevention.

"Student retention is a very complicated issue, and our strategies are always changing," says Linda Goins, Bostrom's director. "You need a multitude of methods and programs to do something that's going to pay off in the long run."

Key steps include aggressively targeting potential dropouts with everything from anger management and drug counseling to in-home tutoring. The district also uses mentors to shepherd students all the way to graduation.

Phoenix Union directs special attention to groups with traditionally high failure rates, such as native American children. They get extra tutoring and attend weekend retreats, "where we get them into a different environment, and teach survival skills," Dr. Goins says.

A different environment is the goal for all students, in fact. Small class sizes and a nurturing atmosphere are tools to pull kids up from a background of failure.

"In the first three weeks of class, the kids are petrified to make any kind of guess on anything," says John Shovestull, who is Murillo's geometry teacher. "They don't want to risk giving a wrong answer and being a failure. They're so used to being wrong.... Once they get a little success, they thrive."

Another factor behind Bostrom's success is money.

The school district is locked into a state dropout-retention program begun in the late 1980s. This means about $3 million annually is devoted to the district's "Keep Kids in School" effort and similar projects.

Other Arizona schools that missed that early bandwagon are still awaiting dropout funds from meager state education budgets.

Money shortfall

Arizona spends about $1,500 less per student than the national average. Last year voters passed an education sales tax for additional funding, but a current economic slump has placed those revenues in doubt.

The fiscal shortfall has statewide ramifications: Only 73.5 percent of Arizonans between ages 18 and 24 hold high school diplomas or equivalent degrees, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. That trails the national average of 85.7 percent and falls far behind North Dakota and Maine, where 94 percent have degrees.

Money is only part of the picture, says Tom Collins, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. "What you see in Phoenix Union is something that goes beyond resources. You see a district that's taking a broader approach by empowering everybody - from teachers and staff members to the whole community - to get involved in those kids' lives."

That involvement includes the private sector as well. For example, the Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks, Honeywell Corp., and other private-sector sponsors donated $500,000 toward the new Suns-Diamondbacks Education Academy. Geared specifically to at-risk teens, the academy will serve as many as 100 students.

The academy plans, like Bostrom, to provide frequent feedback to students - progress reports every six weeks, rather than the 18-week intervals typical in most high schools.

"We try to find ways kids can experience success in a brief period of time, because some of them have not had success in a very long time," says Bostrom director Goins.

Still, the harsher realities of urban Phoenix are never far away: Even on this pleasant campus of low-slung buildings and thick trees, security guards are constantly on patrol and watching for unregistered visitors.

But for students like Chapa the school has opened a door of opportunity. "Now I want to be calling the shots in my life," she says. "I want to be somebody who people look up to."

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