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Education

Rural Alaska school districts see success in efforts to boost graduation rates

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 13, 2015

Four-year graduation statistics released by the state show rates of students earning diplomas have increased in most Alaska districts during the past five years, including in Anchorage.

But one of the best records of improvement in the percentage of students graduating high school in four years, according to the data, is held by the Bering Strait School District, in Western Alaska, where staff has cracked down on attendance, insisted on buy-in from parents and students, and elevated the roles of counselors.

"Parents work with the community," said Bering Strait Superintendent Bobby Bolen. If students don't show up to class, parent liaisons will call their homes to see where they are. "Or that parent liaison can go on a snowmachine or four-wheeler and see if they forgot to get up."

A crackdown on truancy, focus on future

While many rural districts showed steady improvement in four-year graduation rates, Bering Strait stood out above the pack, with a four-year graduation rate in 2015 even above usually high performing urban districts, and one that far exceeded its own rate in 2011.

That year, the four-year graduation rate reached 55 percent in Bering Strait, when 66 of 120 students got diplomas. Last school year, 83 of 99 students in the district's Class of 2015 graduated high school in four years, or about 84 percent.

Fifteen schools make up the sprawling BSSD, which covers an area roughly the size of Great Britain. It stretches into the Bering Sea to St. Lawrence Island and Little Diomede -- an island community closer to Russia than mainland Alaska -- and northeast to Shishmaref in the Chukchi Sea.

Bolen said over the past several years the district has rolled out programs to combat truancy and promote planning for after graduation. It also ditched its former education model, which didn't let students graduate from classes like algebra or chemistry until they passed an exit exam.

"There were students who were just kind of stuck and weren't doing anything to move themselves forward, and weren't getting the support for whatever reason from the school district," Bolen said. The district has since adopted a more standard grading model that awarded students credits for classes they passed based on various work graded.

Carl White, Bering Strait's special assistant to the superintendent, said back in 2009, the school district hired a recent graduate and asked her to call the students who had dropped out and ask why.

"There were a lot of different reasons why people dropped out, but one of them that was really clear was that the teachers were really boring," he said.

BSSD got a grant to pay for more professional development. It got another grant to pay for more counselors, so fewer counselors had to split their time traveling between far-flung schools, White said.

The counselors also help with stricter rules on graduation plans, which ensure students have taken required classes and have a plan for after graduation, whether it's college, vocational training or working in the village. Parents, principals and teachers must sign off on the plans and send them to administrators, Bolen said.

To cut down on truancy, staff run weekly attendance reports. If a student has more than five unexcused absences, the school sends a letter to parents, advising them they could face charges if their children miss too much school. After 15 unexcused absences and if principals feels they've done all they can, truancy complaints may be forwarded to the district attorney's office.

"It just allows us to not let students fall through the cracks," Bolen said. "It might be an easy fix, it might be more challenging, but at least the kid is not being unnoticed."

Increasing exposure to options, technology

Farther north, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District had similar gains.

Graduation rates increased from 57 of 117 four-year graduates in 2011, or nearly 49 percent, to 83 of 111 students graduating in the class of 2015, or nearly 75 percent.

District Superintendent Annmarie O'Brien attributed the increase to students getting additional exposure to career and technical classes.

"It was a very conscious, strategic plan," she said. "I think it's just long been recognized that there was something missing."

Last school year, the district opened a new magnet school that focused on career fields with practical applications in Northwest Alaska, like mining, health care and education.

The Kotzebue-based magnet school also fosters a community, bringing in students from villages who can explore career paths, meet peers and experience living away from home. Often, this is also the first time the students can apply for their driver's licenses, O'Brien said.

About graduation rates, she said, "We have a lot of work to do, but there's progress."

Among urban districts on the road system, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District had the highest graduation rate -- at nearly 82 percent -- of the state's five largest school districts.

Kenai Superintendent Sean Dusek said the school district has honed technology so teachers at some of its larger schools can deliver classes online at smaller schools, to give those students more options. In the last couple of years, the district also had a large increase in students opting to take courses online.

"Really it's all about engaging our students," Dusek said. The district added more community partnerships and elective courses as well.

Graduation rates also benefited last school year by the elimination of the high school exit exam, which students once had to pass to get their diplomas, said several superintendents. The Legislature eliminated that exam in 2014.

Following close behind Kenai, Anchorage School District improved its four-year graduation rate by 8 percent in five years. About 80 percent of students from the Class of 2015 graduated last school year.

ASD Superintendent Ed Graff said staff strives to focus on individual students and making them feel connected to their schools even in a large district.

"Everything goes back to the belief that every child can be successful," he said.

Diverse schools across state

Still, graduation rates varied widely across the state's vast and diverse public school districts -- 53 in all.

In some tiny districts with single-digit graduating classes, four-year graduation rates varied wildly year to year, simply because a couple of students had dropped out or needed more time. Other districts housed very different schools that affected their rates.

In Nenana City School District, 65 of 219 students at two schools graduated in 2015 -- or about 30 percent -- the poorest four-year graduation rate. But Superintendent Eric Gebhart said it's because one school serves an at-risk population.

At that school, the CyberLynx Correspondence Program, 29 of 175 students in the class of 2015 graduated in four years, about 17 percent. At the other school, Nenana City School, 36 of 44 students graduated in four years last school year, about 82 percent.

Gebhart said that while the K-12 city school operates more as a traditional public school, CyberLynx is a statewide correspondence program that bills itself as a school to provide educational support for families who home-school their children. It mostly serves students in urban hubs, particularly Anchorage where the program works with Nine Star Education and Employment Services, Gebhart said.

"Those are kids who have tried other things and they have not been successful," Gebhart said. "We feel like we're getting a significant number of kids through, but at the same time, you're dealing with the most at-risk population at that point, so not all finish or some finish after they turn 20."

In October, the state had 9,455 students enrolled in statewide correspondence schools, nearly 88 percent of them living in urban areas, according to state data.

Gebhart said the district's correspondence school could improve its graduation rates by closing its doors to at-risk students in urban Alaska, but then they would have one less place to go.

On a statewide average, both four-year and five-year graduation rates have steadily increased over the past five years, moving closer to the national average. Last school year, Alaska's four-year graduation rate came in at nearly 76 percent with the five-year graduation rate at about 78 percent.

The most recently calculated national average was 81 percent of students graduating in four years in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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