A Second Chance to Soar
At Roberts High School, students most at risk of dropping out are getting the support they need to succeed.
The school serves a diverse student body. Some are teen mothers, others are homeless. More than a few have been expelled from the district’s traditional schools or have failed many classes. Some are homebound students, who must be out of school for a variety of reasons, and others are hard core offenders who have seen the inside of a prison or a jail. Too many are economically disadvantaged and hail from single-family homes.
For students who attend Roberts, their chances of dropping out of school are much greater than of hearing pomp and circumstance at their own graduation.
Helping Students Who Need the Most
This alternative high school in the Salem-Keizer School District is a fully accredited school that offers the same core curriculum as traditional schools—but with some enhancements: smaller class sizes, access to online classes, a GED program, and the option to retake classes for credit.
“You have to love these kids and be able to look past what they show you because it’s not always their best foot forward,” said Lorelei Gilmore, the school’s principal. “Given the current economy, students have more needs than ever. Homes become much more dysfunctional in tough times.”
At Roberts, the focus is not only on boosting test scores but also on raising up the whole student—and the result is that academic success follows. In this learning-centered environment where choices and behaviors are emphasized, students who previously had difficulty in school are thriving.
Roberts was one of four schools in the district to receive $2 million in federal funding from a School Improvement Grant. The grant, which expires in 2013, is helping schools do things they always wanted to try, but never had the funding to implement. And, for the first time in a decade, Salem-Keizer Public Schools inched past the state’s graduation rate.
With the SIG, says Gilmore, “We’ve been able to have a laser-light focus…It’s been a driving force. It’s been the target that we can shoot for, and it’s given the purpose to move forward in lots of ways.”
Kathleen Sundell, who serves as president of the local teachers union, the Salem-Keizer Education Association, agrees.
“The union has worked with the school board, the superintendent and the principals around what is needed to complete the SIG grant including the evaluation instrument,” said Sundell. “We brought in [the National Education Association] immediately and trained our teachers and our staff in what was expected of them, what they were going to be participating in, and what were the changes that were going to occur.”
And early indicators show test scores are headed in the right direction: up.
Using the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) test, gains in math went up by double-digits and reading scores climbed 15 percent.
“We focused on [getting] the reading and math scores up because most of them were lacking in those areas,” said Patrick Schrader, the assistant principal of Roberts/Early College High School. “We saw about a 20 percent gain in our math scores.”
It’s not just scores that show things are changing at this alternative school. As staff and administration say, students are in their seats when the morning bell rings, engaged and eager to learn.
“We have a 96 percent attendance rate that is also the highest in the district, which is kind of interesting because we’re a school that kids have to apply to,” said Schrader. “[Students] come from all over the city, from South Salem, West Salem, and we don’t provide school transportation, and so they’re coming by either parent transportation or most of them by city bus, public transportation.”
With their hard work paying off, staff and students are excited.
“The work we’re doing here at Roberts is kind of cool.” said Roberts teacher Jane Killefer. Her enthusiasm is shared with Gilmore who says “it’s pretty darn exciting what’s happening here [at Roberts].”
Collaboration is Essential
Management and staff agree those gains wouldn’t have been achieved without a collaborative spirit among all stakeholders. With staff layoffs due to budget cuts, working collaboratively has never been so important.
“Collaboration is essential,” said Sundell. “Without collaboration, it’s like missing a leg off a three-legged stool. You need all pieces there in order to make sure the student can find success. We’re doing whatever it takes to get students to succeed.”
That collaboration has made it possible for the school district and school’s administration to work with SKEA to tweak and adjust the traditional contract, helping to benefit students with the greatest needs. No matter the circumstance, the teachers and staff at this alternative high school work hard to educate and empower every one of their students.
“Our union has led the way in a variety of really exciting things,” said Killefer. “We looked at how we could move forward with improving education for all students while still keeping union values.”
Modifying the collective bargaining agreement, re-defining work days and extending school are just some of the adjustments that SKEA made to lead the way for change. The local worked with its state affiliate, the Oregon Education Association, and NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign to host a symposium, bringing together school staff, building administrators, district and association leadership, and other key education stakeholders. SKEA also has implemented professional development and provided additional resources to help school staff succeed in reaching the most at-risk students.
For Kathy Schliesmayer, an 18-year classroom veteran who teaches electives from sewing and sculpture to printmaking and drawing and works with many of the students who are teen mothers, the students are the staff’s motivation.
“I am deeply committed to the girls being successful,” said Schliesmayer. “I have found them to be delightful, resilient women that have a lot of obstacles in their way, and if they’re given the opportunity or a few tools, they overcome those obstacles and then they can be a successful parent as well as a successful student, kind of breaking that cycle.”