District Battles Dropouts With Cradle-to-Graduation Approach

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Cushing, Okla.

Eric Marquez stares out the window of a portable classroom that abuts a field of yellow prairie grass stretching for miles toward the rising sun.

When his teacher announces it's time to start the morning lesson, the Cushing High School freshman spins around on his metal chair and plops his face on the desk, then looks up at the teacher. Melanie McCool holds up flashcards printed with the words "car" and "star," which the 15-year-old struggles to pronounce.

Mr. Marquez still reads at a 1st-grade level, and that makes him a prime candidate for dropping out of school, explains Ms. McCool, who teaches a dropout-prevention class for high school students here.

The shy teenager already had been shuttled in and out of several schools in Southern California by the time he moved six months ago to Cushing, a town of 7,500 people roughly 50 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.

Ms. McCool says that even if she has to drill him several hours a day, she will get Mr. Marquez up to speed. Students who fall behind academically have a 50 percent greater chance of dropping out of school, she says.

The dropout rate across the nation is nearly stagnant. But in this town in the nation's heartland, where oil drills and horse ranches dot the landscape, more students each year are staying in school.

More than 25 percent of U.S. 9th graders fail to graduate from high school four years later, a rate that has stayed fairly consistent since 1990, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.jp: good, this shows 'cohort' rate followed by single year 'event' rate, sg

And the percentage of high school students in the United States who dropped out each year barely decreased from 6 percent to 5 percent from 1986 to 1993, according to the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

But during the same period, the percentage of students who dropped out of high school in a given year in Cushing--8.4 percent in 1986--plummeted from above the national average to just 2.1 percent in 1994.rw/eds:see above, jp

With the exception of some urban schools that register some of the highest dropout rates in the country, students tend to quit city schools and rural schools at roughly equal rates, according to Jay Smink, the director of the National Dropout Prevention Center in Clemson, S.C.

Combining Strategies

School leaders in the 2,050-student Cushing district say their formula for success is in their mix of approaches to education.

With the help of more than $1 million in federal grants over the past seven years, the district has set up an alternative high school classroom for at-risk students that offers a flexible schedule and a 10-1 student-teacher ratio.

The district also set up an in-school suspension center, parenting classes for pregnant teenagers, and academic tutoring from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

This dropout-prevention program, which is called Project Advantage and is in operation to a lesser extent in several neighboring districts, also includes vocational training and self-esteem workshops.

While the personnel and overhead costs are substantial, Gary Aldridge, who runs the program for the Cushing public schools, says it's a bargain.

"It takes $32,000 [a year] to keep a kid in prison, and 80 percent of those kids are dropouts," Mr. Aldridge said, referring to the high numbers of people in prison who report being high school dropouts. "You could hire a full-time aide and chauffeur these students back and forth to class cheaper then what it takes to keep them in jail."

Mr. Aldridge rejects the notion that students in rural areas abandon school for reasons different from those of their metropolitan peers.

Students in this north-central Oklahoma town, he says, tend to drop out for some of the same reasons as students everywhere else: They have trouble balancing jobs and homework, they get pregnant, they commit crimes and are arrested, or they just become restless. But the primary reason students don't make it to graduation here and across the country is because they are failing academically.

In a recent national survey by the Education Department, 39 percent of the young people who responded said they dropped out of school because they were getting poor grades.

That's why Cushing school officials designed a dropout-prevention system that begins to target education services to children who are still in diapers.

Early-Warning System

During one of her regular home visits, Cathy Miller is jotting down notes on a clipboard as 19-month-old Kyle is having an imaginary tea party with his mother on the hall carpet. Kyle's mother urges him to eat some cookies, and the child lifts the make-believe snack to his lips. Ms. Miller, who runs a district program called Parents as Teachers, says the toddler's play is an indicator of his social development. Her task is to help parents strengthen a child's social and intellectual growth by providing opportunities to play creative games.

"If kids start out on target, it's half the battle," said Ms. Miller, as she noted Kyle's responsiveness on her clipboard.

This kind of attentiveness to a child's development doesn't stop when youngsters enter the classroom. Soon after children enroll in kindergarten, teachers test their cognitive, social, and language skills. The teachers use these screenings as a benchmark for a student's progress over the years. Once they enter elementary school, children with academic difficulties are offered services that include such help as after-school tutoring, computer-based learning, and psychological counseling.

Teachers also try to conduct lessons out of the classroom as often as possible.

At Cushing's Harmony Elementary School last month, the 5th-grade class stood in a wheat-colored field behind the school for a science lesson on prey and predators and the food chain. One boy searched for animal markings in a shallow box he recently had filled with orange clay.

"I've seen raccoons and blue heron and deer tracks in here," David Pope said.

The many farms in the area that raise cattle, horses, and ostriches also provide hands-on lessons in zoology, teacher Joy Morgan says.

Such outdoor activities help students stay interested in the material taught in the classroom, she says, and may keep them from being disaffected with school.

Retaining Adolescents

But once students reach adolescence, the reasons for leaving school tend to become complex--and so do the district's dropout-prevention efforts. This month,in January,jp the district plans to open an alternative classroom in the middle school to catch students in what are considered to be vulnerable years before they enter high school.

But school leaders here say the area's poverty is often the most challenging barrier to success.

Ever since oil companies settled here decades ago, Cushing has been known as "the pipeline crossroads of the world." More crude oil is conveyed in the labyrinth of underground pipelines here than in all of Saudi Arabia, town officials boast.SIC

But after the oil industry slumped in the mid-1980s, many students here began working to help their families financially. Sixty percent of Cushing students are currently eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.

"Some parents are so caught up in getting the electricity turned back on or buying groceries that there doesn't seem to be much time left to get into planning homework for the child," Superintendent Billy D. Childress said.

The district has tried to supplement parents' efforts to keep children interested in school through a variety of activities such as student retreats. Twice a year, some at-risk students are invited--along with a group of student leaders--to an upscale lakeside retreat for a weekend of district-sponsored volleyball, golf, bowling, and swimming.

The idea is for the "peer leaders" to help rekindle the other students' interest in school. And school officials try to make the point to students that if they want to be able to afford these luxuries, they shouldn't limit their earning potential by dropping out of school.

The district uses a detention center to deal with students who have poor discipline. Students who fight or are disrespectful in class are sent to a special classroom for three to five days; a teacher there makes sure they complete their classwork. Cushing school officials say they have found that if young people are suspended from school and sent home, they are far less likely to maintain a good attendance record.

Parenting 101

In Oklahoma, which has the 13th-highest birthrate among adolescents in the country, one of the surest routes out of school is early parenthood. And in Cushing, if a student becomes pregnant, the district's dropout-prevention system immediately goes into overdrive.

In a parenting class early last month, Ms. McCool showed students how to make inexpensive holiday gifts for their children--such as a tambourine made by tying tiny bells to pie tins.

Cindy Linder, a 19-year-old junior with a toddler, recently returned to school after two years. Ms. McCool spent months coaxing the young mother to return.

"I've seen what people that quit have made of their lives, so I decided to come back," Ms. Linder said.

Ms. McCool also tutors students at home, takes pregnant adolescents to doctors for checkups, and once baby-sat for a child whose parent was taking an exam.

Education observers point to such personal involvement in students' lives as a reason why Cushing's approach to dropout prevention has been so effective.

"We've always tried to be very aggressive," Superintendent Childress said. "When we see adolescents on the street and not in school or not being very productive, we try to find answers."

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