SHERIDAN — In an effort to continue improving high school graduation rates, Sheridan County School District 2 has initiated the “Graduation Counts” program.
Modeled after a similar, successful program in Montana, Graduation Counts aims to encourage every high school student to complete school and receive a diploma, whether they choose to then enter the workforce or advance to higher education opportunities.
Impetus for the program began several years ago when graduation rates were at a low of about 76 percent in 2008.
Sheridan High School Principal Dirlene Wheeler said rates have increased since then, hovering between 85 and 86 percent the last three years.
But improvement is still sought.
As part of the program, Wheeler said a committee has been formed to study the issue that incorporates representatives from throughout the community, rather than only school personnel. She said committee members include parents, nonprofit representatives, city government representatives, members of the business community, juvenile justice representatives and more.
She also said SCSD 2 administrators have traveled to Montana to learn the strategies and programs that have been successful there.
Wheeler said that discussion about graduation rates took on a new importance during the Poverty Circles discussions held in the fall of 2012 by the Center for a Vital Community.
“It generated a lot of interest in what are we doing for our students,” said Wheeler. “Are we serving everybody and are they getting what they need in school to succeed? I think everyone would agree that the ticket out of poverty is education.”
Wheeler said that obviously, the ultimate goal is to achieve a 100 percent graduation rate, though movement towards that goal is taken in steps.
“Our goal this year was to reach 90 percent,” she explained. “At the beginning of the year, the senior class was at 94 percent. We are already down. I think we are still at 90 but we may be falling behind 90. I am really sad because I thought we could reach 90 percent this year.”
Wheeler said the reasons for students dropping out of high school are many and each student has a unique set of circumstances that may lead to dropout. She said some are having to work to help financially support their family, others are behind in their studies and don’t feel they can catch up, some feel they are mature and don’t need school and others drop out simply because they reach the legal dropout age of 16.
“This time of year a lot of seniors feel they are done with high school,” she said. “They feel they are mature and tired of school and the drama.”
The Graduation Counts program incorporates several tools for identifying students who might be on the path to dropping out and hopes to intervene prior to that happening.
“Since 2008 and 2009, we’ve done a tremendous amount of interventions,” said Wheeler. “When we did research on the best practices to keep kids in school, it takes a lot of different interventions that are based on the needs of that particular student. So there are many things you need to do to keep your kids in school because every kid is unique.”
Due to the unique needs of every student, Wheeler said one important part of Graduation Counts is one-on-one mentoring.
“We have high school students helping younger students and college kids helping high school students or junior high students,” said Wheeler. “Also, adults in the community, depending on the circumstances for that particular student. A lot of it is just relationship building; being there for that particular student who may need a friend or some extra support or some homework help.”
Wheeler also said that keeping students on the path to graduation has to start long before they step through the doors of SHS. She noted that in talks with elementary and junior high teachers and administrators, she found that truancy and absenteeism in younger years, even as young as third grade, can often be indicators of students who will later be behind in their studies, lack engagement and will be prone to dropout.
“We’ve made good gains, but we would be better off if we made interventions earlier,” she said.
“The thing I want parents and the community to know is we want to be partners with parents,” she added. “We want their kids to succeed and have a good life. We are all on the same team. It does take a village to raise a child. It takes all of us. Every day counts, it takes all of us and if we want Sheridan students to be top notch in every way, we are going to have to pay attention to every student.”