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Schools list strategies to cut down on dropouts

Resource type: News

The Courier-Post (New Jersey) |

Original Source By JOSEPH GIDJUNIS Woodrow Wilson High School’s incoming class of seniors is expected to have at least 40 extra names to call come graduation next June. While the Class of 2008 had 210 graduates, the Class of 2009, could have as many as 250 to 280, said Principal Calvin Gunning. The reason: fewer dropouts. The Camden School District ranked third worst in New Jersey in 2007, the latest data available. There were 390 dropouts in grades 9 through 12, with the 9th grade transition year being the worst with 180, or nearly half of all dropouts. Historically, the city has a dropout rate of about 40 to 50 percent, said schools spokesman Bart Leff. But Woodrow Wilson is predicting it will reverse that pattern in the new school year. “I don’t think anybody is denying there is a dropout problem. You have to recognize a problem before you can fix it,” Gunning said. “The thought process was that we had to get these students to stay because we knew that once these children pushed into 11th grade, they knew they were going to make it.” Why this class is meant to be shining proof of how the city schools are making headway against the negative stereotypes of a tattered city is attributed to a plan put in place three years ago. Called small learning communities, the school’s entire student body has been placed in one of four academic houses with a more focused curriculum such as business and entrepreneurship, fine arts and humanities, science and math or social and human science. Students choose the houses, or subject areas, they want to be in for their high school careers after they receive a taste of each house during ninth grade. Think of it like picking a major in college, except each student still receives the required broad spectrum of classes. For example, the environmental science students in the science and math house are given time this year to construct and maintain a school greenhouse. When students fail in the classroom, they are at the highest risk of dropping out, school officials said. But focusing on a subject of their interest is keeping them happier, and keeping them in a tighter community provides for more individualized attention since each house has its own faculty. “It’s less likely a child can get lost in a small environment. If there is an adult who can follow you through most of your career, there is a great chance of success,” said Rochelle Hendricks, assistant commissioner for the Division of District and School Improvement for the New Jersey Education Department. To further combat the dropout problem in the ninth grade, Gunning moved many of his most veteran teachers to ninth- or 10th-grade classrooms. Camden High School is implementing a similar system, too, school officials said. By implementing small learning communities early, Camden schools are ahead of the game statewide. As of this fall, all Abbott school districts are expected to implement a plan for students to receive additional personalized attention. Abbott districts refer to the Abbott v. Burke New Jersey Supreme Court case resulting in 31 school districts receiving additional state financial assistance. While Camden schools have chosen these academic houses, other districts could use other methods, such as additional block scheduling where students receive additional instruction on several subjects or more individual advisement. “The idea is to look at personalization as a way to connect adults and children to minimize dissociation, minimize disenchantment and hope to see retention and graduation,” Hendricks said. “The idea here, particularly large high schools, teachers can get to know the students, not just about them.” After Camden, Pennsauken ranks second in the number of dropouts in the tri-county region with 88. The school district has had an up-and-down history with dropouts, dropping as low as 59 the year prior. But in a district with 5,800 students, 88 isn’t a number to dismiss. By comparison, Camden and Pennsauken’s neighbor, the Cherry Hill School District, is near the bottom. It is the second largest district in the tri-county area with 11,500 students, and it had 20 dropouts. “Eighty-eight. I’m concerned with that. And the board of education is concerned with that,” said Pennsauken School District Superintendent James Chapman. “But our belief, it’s our mission to prepare kids to function well in society. They should be here the four years to do that. Leaving school before they graduate puts them at an incredible disadvantage.” Chapman said his district is seeing results like Camden, too, after creating the Twilight Alternative Program, a classroom environment providing instruction in the afternoon and early evening to about 40 students. Classes are kept to 10 students per teacher to allow for more one-on-one teaching. “I believe they stay here if they’re being successful in the program,” Chapman said. “We’re so pleased, we want to extend that to our middle school with students having difficulty in the regular program.”

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