School officials say new dropout prevention plan is working

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By AJ Vicens

Because of personal issues, Wanda Boyke's daughter had to leave school for a few months during her junior year.

Boyke, who lives in the Deer Creek area, said her 16-year-old daughter missed so much of the 2008-09 school year that it was nearly impossible for her to be re-admitted at any local high school. Officials at several schools told her they feared her daughter would just be too far behind.

Enter Dave Kollar, Jeffco Public Schools' director of dropout prevention and recovery. Kollar's team works with students on the brink of dropping out of high school, or who have already dropped out. Boyke said Kollar helped her daughter enroll in a school designed to help students recover lost credits, and put her back on the path to completing her high school education.

"I had nowhere to go, nowhere to turn," Boyke said. "I can't tell you how many schools we went to and kept getting rejected. I don't know where she would be without (Kollar's) help."

Kollar said Boyke's situation is a perfect example of why the dropout prevention and recovery office was formed at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year. Most high-schoolers who drop out or are considering dropping out are in that position for a reason, and it's up to Kollar and his small staff to find out what that reason is and get them back in school.

"We really try to encourage people to complete their education and finish up," Kollar said.

In the first year of the program, Kollar estimates, he and his staff contacted more than 1,000 high-schoolers who told the district they were dropping out. Of those, about 500 were brought back into the educational system, at a traditional high school or in a specialized program designed for at-risk students.

State education data show that 1,693 Jeffco Public Schools students failed to graduate on time in 2008. That's out of the 7,404 eligible to graduate in 2008, for an on-time graduation rate of 77 percent. The statewide on-time graduation percentage in 2008 was 73.9 percent.

"This has always been part of the work the district has done, but now we can focus more directly on the problem," Kollar said. The idea belongs to many people throughout the district, according to Kollar, from counselors to principals to district-level staff. The district is also working with people throughout Colorado that focus on preventing students from dropping out long before they ever make that decision.

Kollar has been collaborating with several groups, including the Colorado Children's Campaign.

"(Jeffco) was enthusiastic about acting on this," said Alex Medler, vice president for research and analysis at the Colorado Children's Campaign. Medler's group, a child advocacy organization, has reducing the state's dropout rate as one of its key goals.

Part of Medler's work is working with districts around the state to analyze trends in their student bodies to see the red flags related to dropouts, and to find ways to prevent students from dropping out.

For instance, according to Medler's research, a ninth-grade F on a report card spells trouble. It either has to do with attendance or discipline issues, or with the fact that a student is not in the right class. As time passes in high school, it becomes increasingly harder to make up the credits lost with the failed class, leading to an increased likelihood the student will eventually drop out.

"It's a big red flag," Medler said. "You need to figure out what's going on early. Kids need to find ways to make that credit up."

In Jeffco's case, the district provided student trends to Medler, who then did research with Johns Hopkins University to analyze the data and compare them to the district's policies and practices. When that audit is completed, Kollar and his staff can further refine prevention efforts in Jeffco.

But Kollar has also found that it doesn't always take in-depth research to keep students from dropping out or to get them to return to school.

"Sometimes it just goes back to treating people nice, with respect, and building a relationship with them," Kollar said. "Some of the (students) are ready for that and need to establish a way back in, and know there's someone friendly to talk to, know that there's an advocate for them in the system."

Kollar said he explains to the students that research shows people who complete high school are more likely to live longer, less likely to rely on public services, and less likely to have an arrest on their record. "There's this long list of things that loosely tie back to finishing high school. It's a powerful force in some ways."

Kollar and his staff also get personal satisfaction from their work.

"Personally, it's some of the most rewarding work we do," Kollar said. "There's something about that diploma that provides them the motivation to do other things. It's the feel-good part of your day."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.

For more information on Jeffco Public Schools’ office of dropout prevention and recovery, visit www.jeffcopublicshools.org/finish. Or call 303-982-6559.