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The alternative school program getting most at-risk students to graduate

Ohio’s EOS focuses on school skills and moves 60 percent more at-risk students toward graduation

at-risk-studentsA decade ago, approximately 10 percent of high school students at my district—450 kids—did not earn enough credits to advance to the next grade level. Six-hundred were at risk of school failure and/or dropping out. At the time, 70-100 high school students were expelled annually.

Not only was this inhibiting students from succeeding in school, life and future careers, but it was straining teachers within the classroom. According to recent research, the annual cost for a teacher to deal with a disruptive student for one hour each day amounts to more $27,000 per classroom in lost instructional time.

Clearly, something had to change.

The Westerville City School District (WCSD), where I work as director of alternative education and assessment, serves students living within a 52-square-mile area located just northeast of Columbus, Ohio. Its enrollment of approximately 14,800 students makes WCSD the 11th largest school district in the state.

Ten years ago, the general working assumption of district educators was that the problem(s) facing these students can most often be attributed to a poor match between the school and the student. In order to meet the diverse needs of the district’s students and families, especially for those students disenfranchised with the traditional school experience, an innovative option has continue to be refined and enhanced. The WCSD alternative high school program, the Educational Options for Success (EOS), was established with Alternative Challenge Grant money to support innovation within public schools.

The program supports students who have been expelled from school; students who are overage and under-credited and are considering dropping out; students who have dropped out and/or experienced failure in a charter school alternative; and students whose personal schedule and responsibilities will not accommodate a classroom experience during a traditional school day.

Next page: How the highly-structured, supportive system works

The primary goal for creating EOS was to facilitate successful school completion through the application of evidence-based instructional practices and the development of life skills and academic enablers. By fostering interpersonal skills, motivation, engagement, and study skills, the EOS program drives student success in both their school and community environments, while also supporting their transition from the EOS program.

EOS was created to serve the needs of at-risk students by providing a highly structured and supportive alternative instructional setting. The program uses Apex Learning digital curriculum as an alternative instructional delivery system and offers tiered support services based on the degree of student needs. The purpose of the program is to assist targeted groups in gaining the skills required to earn course credits and, when applicable, provide assistance toward passing and thus meeting all state graduation tests/requirements.

By preventing highly at-risk students from dropping out of school, EOS allows over-aged and under-credited students to earn sufficient credits and/or to pass state exams so they may graduate, or to allow students who have already dropped out to return to school and graduate. The program offers five specific services to both the student and his/her family: assessment, education, accountability, counseling, and parental involvement.

The facility in which EOS is now located once served as the WCSD administrative offices. The interior of the building was designed with input by students for students, incorporating a striking color palate, glass ceilings, a translucent and open concept that includes four study pods, wave-like walls and a large, expansive kitchen. The design was specifically developed to serve as a more professional environment for students. Students made it clear they wanted to come to a place that felt more like a work environment, fully equipped with a coffee station and a structure designed to minimize all sound.

Incorporating a combination digital curriculum, blended learning, face-to-face mentoring and community service, today EOS has served more than 1,300 students. Nearly 89 percent of the students who enroll at the EOS earn credit or graduate. Initially, the district went from graduating 13.5 percent of a defined disenfranchised student population to now consistently graduating nearly 75 percent.

Next page: What researchers had to say

The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University recently conducted a study on the EOS program to evaluate its effectiveness.

EOS was identified as a model program for dropout prevention, receiving the highest research rating of Strong Evidence of Effectiveness. Dr. Ed Lentz, University of Cincinnati (2011), cited “The fact that EOS assists two groups of students who either would not be educated for at least a semester (expellees) or who have already dropped out of school is commendable.”

“Since its inception, nearly 90 percent of students beginning EOS have completed the program; a program, it is noted, with very strict standards of conduct,” Lentz said in his report. “Outcomes for those completing the program are highly positive and far better than those not completing the program. This fact adds weight to a conclusion that EOS has prevented very negative educational outcomes. Success with these groups has proven very difficult in general; yet, EOS success is clear and is repeated every academic year.”

The program focuses on supporting a student’s need to maintain an adequate rate of academic progress, maintain consistent attendance, improve motivation for school success by decreasing incidents of repeated failure and feelings of alienation, assure ongoing adult support and mentoring/coaching, address mental health, substance use, delinquency and/or deviant disruptive behavioral concerns.

EOS is committed to maintaining high expectations and standards, focusing on helping students to meet expectations, and involving them in meaningful learning opportunities to encourage responsibility while maintaining the use of positive behavioral practices and disciplinary alternatives that support ongoing student engagement.

By continuing to build partnerships with community-based individuals to engage students in opportunities to contribute to their community, EOS creates and maintains resources and services that address issues related to mental health, substance abuse, and family conflict. District officials involve parents to the fullest extent possible in order to promote positive socialization and adjustment for adolescents.

Today the EOS program continues to improve the graduation rate, attendance rate, and the district’s overall ability to connect with and motivate the disenfranchised student who may often be contributing to issues surrounding efforts to provide safe, positive learning environments for all students.

Each student has a choice to attend the EOS program, which is really what’s important. This program has and continues to inspire and prepare students for life, supporting them with college preparation or career exploration to get them to the next level.

Dr. Scott Ebbrecht is the Director of Alternative Education and Assessment for Westerville City Schools. He serves as a school administrator, an organizational leadership consultant and public speaker on meeting the needs of disenfranchised students, school improvement planning and conducting cultural analyses within organizations.

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