Thursday, January 24, 2002

No dropouts: At one school, it's not just a goal, it's a fact

Walton-Verona works for zero dropouts

By Ray Schaefer
Enquirer Contributor

        WALTON — Walton-Verona High School has had zero dropouts in three years — a Kentucky state record.

        That's an impressive accomplishment, considering 900,000 adults among the state's 4.1 million residents do not have high school diplomas and the statewide graduation rate hovers at only 65.7 percent.

[photo] Gene Wilhoit, Kentucky Department of Education commissioner, talks with Alex Turner (right) and Danny Butler, both 17, in an advanced English class at Walton-Verona High School.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        It's also an accomplishment that is turning heads.

        Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit came to the Boone County school Wednesday to present a Kentucky Learning Talks Award. He said he wasn't aware of any other school in the state that had a zero dropout rate.

        School officials attribute the zero dropout rate to a program that helps keep kids in school each day, tracking them with highly individualized attention to ensure they attend and pass their classes.

        If a student stays home, Boone County Sheriff's Deputy Jan Wuchner drives up in his white cruiser to give the child a lift to school.

        “It's a great visual aid,” Deputy Wuchner said.

        And it's sometimes necessary. With 22 percent of the student population eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, some students live in homes without telephones.

        All this attention is part of the Schools and Families Empowered (SAFE) program, an anti-truancy program the district developed to reduce the dropout rate.

        It was funded originally by a federal grant, but has been so successful that the Northern Kentucky Independent Health District will fund it now that the three-year grant is expiring.

        The high school, situated in a formerly rural area now home to upscale development, defines a truant as someone who has missed school without an excuse for two consecutive days or more.

        Walton-Verona's small size — 473 students in grades 7-12 — is a large part of why SAFE works.

        It allows teachers and administrators to spot potential problems early because they know the students they teach — and where to find them if they're missing.

        But can Walton-Verona's feat be duplicated elsewhere, even in a large district such as Cincinnati Public Schools, which suffers from a 57.6 percent graduation rate and is on academic watch by the Ohio Department of Education?

        Ohio's average graduation rate is 69.5 percent, 3.8 percentage points ahead of Kentucky's average.

        CPS spokeswoman Christine Wolff said comparing Walton-Verona with CPS is comparing apples and oranges. But a Washington, D.C.-based education expert said Walton-Verona's model could work even in an urban setting.

        Jorge Ruiz-De-Velasco is a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a non-profit research center for educational, social and governance issues. He said the Walton-Verona model could be duplicated if there is tight case management and attention paid to family issues such as health care, finances and teaching parents to encourage children to go to class.

Community help

        But Mr. Ruiz-De-Velasco said if one of those elements is missing, a program to reduce dropout rates could fail.

    According to the U.S. Department of Education, here is where Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky ranked in percentage of ninth-graders who went on to graduate from high school in four years. Information is based on 1998-99, the most recent data available. The top and bottom five states are included.
   1. Nebraska, 86.3 percent
   2. Minnesota, North Dakota, 84.7
   4. Utah, Iowa, 83.2
   28. Indiana, Nevada, 70.6
   31. Ohio, 69.5
   36. Kentucky, 65.7
44. Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, 55.5
   47. Tennessee, Louisiana, 55.1
   49. South Carolina, 51.8
   50. Georgia, 50.4
   United States, 67.2
   Sources: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education; United Health Foundation
        “(It's) going to be hard if you don't bring in the mayor and other community-based organizations to get involved,” he said.

        Walton-Verona Superintendent Robert Storer said he has the right two people at the high school:

        • Larry Davis, a retired principal from Grant County High School in Dry Ridge.

        • Deputy Wuchner, a 28-year Kentucky State Police veteran who now works for the Boone County Sheriff's Department as the School Resource Officer at Walton-Verona.

        The dropout prevention program kicks in when Mr. Davis sees a student has missed two consecutive days. He said truancy and dropping out is often a symptom of a health problem such as an eating disorder or pregnancy. Family dysfunction can also keep kids from finishing school.

        “It can be parents fighting a divorce,” Mr. Davis said. “Parents forget their main focus.”

        One of the first calls on Mr. Davis' telephone answering machine Wednesday was typical of what he sees every day:

        A father called to say his child will not go to school, and the father wants to meet with Mr. Davis to talk about the problem.

        Talking to worried parents is one of many services Mr. Davis and Deputy Wuchner provide.

        “We've helped parents get jobs,” Deputy Wuchner said. “We've gone to parents' (places of employment).”

        Other services include:

        • Dentists for children embarrassed about their teeth.

        • Pregnancy counseling.

        • Outside mediators for the parents and school officials.

        At least one rural Tristate superintendent, Clermont Northeastern's Charles Shreve, seemed willing to explore what Walton-Verona is doing. Clermont Northeastern High's enrollment, about 630, is 157 higher than Walton-Verona's.

        Clermont Northeastern's graduation rate averages about 77.8, higher than the Ohio average, but lower than Walton-Verona's 100 percent.

        “We do not have an attendance officer,” Mr. Shreve said. “Our principals have to act as attendance officers. We don't have that level of service because we don't have that level of personnel.”

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