MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

May 19, 2013

Reducing drop-out rate is challenge for MPS

System has shown progress in fight to keep kids in school

By Wendy Burton
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Muskogee Public Schools saw one in 18 of its high school students drop out last year, according to State Department of Education statistics.

There are numerous reasons for high school students to drop out — underperforming, lack of interest, personal problems, health problems, frequently transferring schools — and the district must find a way to serve each student in danger of calling it quits, school officials said.

Of all the area schools in Muskogee, McIntosh, Wagoner and Cherokee counties, only Eufaula Public Schools has a higher drop-out rate than Muskogee, 2012 state records show.

The school district with the least amount of dropouts in the area is Okay Public Schools, where not one student dropped out in 2012.

The statistics show that districts with a higher poverty rate, such as Muskogee with 80 percent of students on free or reduced lunches, have a higher drop-out rate.

But not all poverty-stricken districts have a high drop-out rate. Drop-out rate is figured by dividing the number of students in grades seven through 12 by the number of dropouts in those grades for the year.

Tahlequah Public Schools has a much lower drop-out rate than Muskogee. One in 54 students dropped out in 2012, though the schools are similar in size and similar in poverty level, according to state statistics.

Nonetheless, state records reveal Muskogee schools has seen its drop-out rate drop significantly over the last four or five years.

For example, in 2009, the drop-out rate was 7.4 percent, last year 4.3 percent.

Superintendent Mike Garde said the district is on the right track with such programs as advocacy groups at the high school, which are partially funded by the City of Muskogee Foundation.

Advocacy groups are voluntary for high school students, who can choose to meet with a group of students with a mentor, usually a teacher at the school, at least once a week. The funding the groups are given is used for field trips and college tours for the advocacy groups.

Garde said those groups have certainly helped reduce the number of students who drop out.

“And we have a strong character initiative, and many items in the recently passed bond issue will help,” Garde said.

Character programs are one way the district said it has helped reduce the drop-out rate, said Melony Carey, district spokeswoman, gifted and talented coordinator and professional development director.

The district has received several Promising Practice awards from the Character Education Partnership, with many of the high school programs getting special recognition.

In 2012, the district’s awards included:

• MPS Character Camps, a two-day retreat for students in grades five through eight, where they learn about team-building and character development.

• Cafe Conversations, student-led summits where students developed character goals. This enabled Muskogee High School’s Rougher ROAD to Success to spread to other schools in the district.

• Rougher Alternative Academy’s Serve to Learn/Animal Shelter. Students spend time walking dogs at the Muskogee Animal Shelter.

The Rougher Alternative Academy also was recently named a National School of Character, as was the district’s high school in 2012.

But, dropouts and keeping students in school remains a large focus for the district, said Garde, who has recently attended a few seminars on drop-out rates and how to help students who are heading down that path.

What he’s learned is the district could benefit from two professionals — a graduation counselor and a drop-out preventionist, Garde said.

A graduation coach talks with the students about college, from starting high school to finish, and helps them career plan, apply for scholarships and more.

A drop-out preventionist is more in-depth. He or she builds a connection with the student and his or her family and stays connected to keep the student in school.

“The greatest impact on the students is someone who knows where they are, what they are doing and where they are going on an individual basis,” Garde said. “When you make that kind of connection, that’s when you see the greatest benefit.”

But the other thing Garde learned at the workshops is that preventing dropouts takes a great deal of financial investment, he said.

And funds for drop-out prevention professionals aren’t foreseen in the near future, the superintendent said.



Some see success

with preventionists


Tahlequah Public Schools is the closest in the area in size to Muskogee schools.

Tahlequah has about 300 fewer students in high school, and it’s poverty rate is somewhat better than Muskogee’s.

According to Oklahoma State Department of Education statistics:

• Muskogee has 1,514 students in high school. Tahlequah has 1,206.

• Muskogee has 84 percent of its district student population on free or reduced lunches. Tahlequah has 75 percent.

• Muskogee’s drop-out rate last year was 4.5. Tahlequah’s was 1.8 percent.

Lisa Presley, superintendent of TPS, credits a student advocate at the high school and the district’s alternative education program with it’s lower drop-out rate.

“One of the things is we have a very good alternative education program and we have boot school for students who have been adjudicated,” Presley said. “Our student advocate’s responsibility is partly to track student attendance and keep them in school.”

Presley said the advocate has been “very effective.”

“We also have a truancy officer who works part time with the advocate, going to students’ homes, talking to parents, doing whatever it takes to get them to school.”

Some of TPS’ other ways of working with students are also very successful, Presley said.

• The high school has a person whose only job is to make sure students pass all four end-of-instruction exams through remediation, tracking and tutoring.

• If students are failing a class for more than two weeks, they are pulled out of an elective and put into guided tutoring to improve their grades.

• The student advocate works to keep students in school, but also helps them pursue their GEDs or get into Job Corps if they end up quitting anyway.

“All those things are human resources that take money, but that’s money well spent,” Presley said. “The student advocate is key, and our alternative education program is key.”

Muskogee High School has four counselors, more than 1,500 students, and the counselors are now responsible for giving, tracking and monitoring end-of-instruction exams, as well, Garde said.

“We really need a graduation coach to keep students on track,” he said.

The district also has alternative education programs.

Rougher Alternative Academy serves many at-risk students, and the Regimented School, a boot camp-style school, is currently serving 10 students and will grow to serve 25 with funds from the recently passed bond issue.

But Garde said the district wants to help students long before they get to the point of needing alternative education.

“You don’t wait until they are a grade level behind or they are failing,” Garde said.

Reach Wendy Burton at (918) 684-2926 or wburton@muskogeephoenix.com.

Area drop-out rates

District No. of students 2012 drop-out rate  Poverty rate
Eufaula  376 1 in 15 77
Muskogee 1,575 1 in 18 80
Wagoner  653 1 in 26 74
Tahlequah 1,195 1 in 54 75
Fort Gibson  594 1 in 118 51
Warner 166 1 in 166 75
Hulbert 195 1 in 195 77
Checotah 466 1 in 233 77
Hilldale  501 1 in 250 49
Okay 141 None 74

• Poverty rate is the percentage of all students in the district receiving free or reduced lunches through government assistance in 2012-2013.

(Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education)