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Originally published Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Once shamefully low, Everett's graduation rate soars

Seven years ago, the Everett School District had one of the lowest graduation rates in the state. Through a concerted push, it has since significantly raised the percentage of students who earn a diploma.

Seattle Times education reporter

In his first two years of high school, Jordan Gerard failed four classes — the maximum number of Fs he could get and still earn a diploma in four years.

Graduation, he says, seemed a long way off. Left to himself, he says he might have fallen too far behind to graduate next June with the rest of his class.

But the Everett School District, as part of an aggressive, seven-year effort to raise its graduation rate from an embarrassingly low 53 percent, is making sure that doesn't happen.

Last year, before Gerard even worried about catching up, he got called to the office to meet with a "success coordinator," one of a handful of people the district hired about five years ago to work one-on-one with students at risk of dropping out.

Maureen Engnes wanted to stop Gerard's slide before it became too big a problem. Gerard was surprised someone noticed. He's met with Engnes about once a month since, and is passing all his classes except history, but is working on missed assignments that will raise that grade.

If he graduates, Gerard will be one more success in Everett's impressive march to an on-time graduation rate of nearly 84 percent, among the most improved rates of any district in the Puget Sound area.

Counting students who come back for a fifth year, 90 percent of Everett students in the class of 2009 earned a diploma — not the highest in the state, but still a bright spot in what many consider a state and national dropout crisis.

In Everett, success coordinators such as Engnes are just one part of the district's effort. Over the past seven years, Everett has closely tracked every student's grades and absences, overhauled boring classes, offered free summer makeup classes, and taken dozens of other steps to motivate, push and nag more students into leaving high school with a diploma in hand.

The district also raised its graduation requirements during those years, adding a third year of math. Some worried that would raise the number of dropouts, but it hasn't.

Some of the district's strategies are controversial. For example, it grants half a credit for a failed class in language arts, math or science if students later pass the state's 10th-grade exams, formerly known as the WASL, in those subjects. Some educators say that passing a test can't replace all students would learn in a semester.

District leaders don't think this kind of assistance amounts to coddling. They believe it's simply not right to let immature 15-year-olds sink themselves, and they say that as long as they're not making classes easier, all the support they offer means more students gain the skills they need to succeed in college or the work force.

"Schools have a lot of things to do," says Chief Academic Officer Terry Edwards, who's led the graduation effort from the beginning. "But nothing is more important than ensuring that a kid actually graduates."

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Shocked by dropout rate

At 7 one recent morning, a dozen people sat around a table at Everett School District headquarters, coffee cups in hand. All four of the district's high-school principals were there, as well as central-office administrators.

For the past six years this same group — more or less — has met nearly every week to set annual goals for graduation and figure out ways to reach them.

As he opened the meeting, Edwards motioned to a list on a white board, to remind the group of the graduation goals set back in September. Group members are now close to knowing whether they'll meet the goals.

Back in 2003, Edwards was one of the people shocked when the state first said Everett's graduation rate was 53 percent.

"We had pretty much told ourselves the story ... that we were doing a pretty good job," Edwards said.

"We didn't see hundreds of kids standing around on corners."

Before then, Washington and many other states only reported the percent of seniors who dropped out in their last year, a much smaller number.

But in 2003, under pressure from a number of national organizations, Washington switched to what most people assume is meant by graduation rate: the percentage of high-school freshmen who graduate four years later.

That new calculation revealed an ugly reality: Washington's average on-time graduation rate was then 66 percent. Among school districts, Everett was near the bottom, along with Highline and Seattle.

Nationally, the picture was bad, too, with an estimated 75 percent graduation rate, low enough to spur a national campaign of sorts to raise it.

President Obama is seeking $900 million from Congress to improve the 2,000 high schools that have the highest dropout rates.

In Everett, some School Board members and community leaders wondered if the bad news was largely an accounting problem because the district had to count students as dropouts even if they'd just transferred to other schools, but failed to report that.

Bad data were a part of the problem, and graduation rates have gone up, in part because Everett and other districts now track students better. But it wasn't just a data problem.

Success coordinators

One of Everett's first moves was to hire success coordinators such as Engnes to act as an extra parent for many students — advocating for them while insisting they get their work done.

The district also dug into its data to figure out exactly which students were failing and why.

It examined classes with high failure rates, looking to see if the curriculum or grading practices placed unnecessary hurdles in front of students.

And it found some surprises. One of the classes that 30 percent of students failed was a former graduation requirement called Infotech, a technology-skills class. The problem was that many students knew the material before they started.

"They were just so bored silly by the class that they weren't coming," Edwards said.

The district also added support classes so students who were struggling in, say, geometry could take a second math class that offered extra help.

It started programs in elementary and middle schools to get students thinking about what classes they would need to prepare for careers, and offered a free summer program for students who needed to make up credits.

Some changes were small but important.

Not long ago, students who didn't earn a diploma after their senior year had to come back and ask to be re-enrolled if they wanted to continue for a fifth year. Now, the district automatically signs them up, sends them a schedule, and calls them in August to remind them they're expected in the fall.

In all, the district's varied, a la carte approach that supports students and makes instructional improvements is what research shows works best.

"The more you do, the more likely you are to make an impact," said Russell Rumberger, head of the California Dropout Research Project.

Debunking myths

Over the years, Everett's on-time graduation committee shot down some of its own stereotypes about dropouts.

Yes, there were a few dozen students who failed all their subjects and missed a lot of school. But committee members discovered that at least half the students in academic trouble were failing just one class and many were coming to school every day.

All some needed was the knowledge that someone was watching and supporting them.

"Sometimes that's all it takes," Engnes says.

That seems true for Eric Torres, an Everett High senior who had to go to summer school to retake the classes he failed as a freshman and sophomore. He's since outgrown the "kid stuff" that got him in trouble, he says, and he's on track to graduate this month. But he also still visits his success coordinator, saying it helps "just to have someone else on my case, too."

Perhaps the biggest myth that Everett debunked was that dropouts just aren't motivated to finish school.

Maria Brennan's experience shows that's not true. Her job, new as of February, is to track down all students who've been absent for more than a month or announced they're dropping out.

She starts with the phone book, but also uses MySpace and Facebook. To date, she's talked 80 percent of them into signing up for programs that will help them get a diploma.

One was Camille Harker, 18, who left Jackson High School last year for academic and family reasons.

Harker says she liked some of her classes and teachers, but hated others and "was so done with high school."

Brennan recently had some good news for her. If Harker was willing to attend an accelerated, eight-week summer program the district started last year, she could get her diploma by the end of August.

"I can do that," Harker said, smiling.

Only two students have, in no uncertain terms, told Brennan to leave them alone.

She keeps calling one of them anyway. He returned her voice message, which she took as a sign that she shouldn't give up.

"If I give up," she says, "that allows them to give up."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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