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In Indiana School District, Dropouts Have Tech Alternative to Regular Classroom

April 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In Shelbyville, Ind., Melissa Lakes and the Student Achievement Center provide at-risk students with technology-enhanced hands-on learning. But it wasn't always like that. Part of the American Graduate project, Learning Matters' John Tulenko profiles one school district that wholly responded to its "dropout nation" epithet.
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GWEN IFILL: Our latest story about the dropout crisis and efforts to keep students in school comes from the Midwest.

Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television profiles one school district that altered its whole approach toward at-risk students.

It’s part of our ongoing American Graduate project.

JOHN TULENKO: In Shelbyville, Ind., 17-year-old Kayla Owsley lives a very grownup life, caring for her 2-year-old daughter, Bailey.

KAYLA OWSLEY, student: At the end of seventh grade, that’s when I found out that I was pregnant. And it was hard to think that I could even be a mom, but I am, and I’m a good one.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN TULENKO: She stayed in school, and in 10th grade, began working to support her daughter, but it all became too much.

KAYLA OWSLEY: I was exhausted. I could barely wake up in the mornings. Like, it was hard — I was just like starting to drag myself. And my grades were slipping. And I could see that, like, a lot.

I was scared I wasn’t going to be able to graduate high school, go to college. I was scared that what I wanted to be, I wasn’t going to be able to do it.

JOHN TULENKO: Michael Maupin was worried about his future too.

MICHAEL MAUPIN, student: I’m a slower learner. Moving at other people’s pace, that’s — that just — it makes it that much harder.

I got bored of hearing teachers talk all the time. I was making straight F’s. I mean, there was no D’s, C’s, B’s. It was just straight F’s.

JOHN TULENKO: Just teenagers, both Michael Maupin and Kayla Owsley were at a crossroads: in danger of joining the more than 600,000 students who drop out of high school every year.

It’s a life-altering decision. Dropouts are far more likely to be unemployed, on public assistance, and even incarcerated. But now school districts like Shelbyville have made fixing the dropout problem a top priority.

Shelbyville’s wakeup call first came six years go, when this quiet community of 19,000, its streets lined with modest homes, unexpectedly became the poster child for the dropout crisis. The high school, with its roughly 75 percent graduation rate, was the subject of this 2006 cover story in Time magazine.

TOM ZOBEL, principal, Shelbyville High School: It was a conversation-starter in a lot of arenas, and I think that was beneficial.

JOHN TULENKO: Tom Zobel had just become the high school principal. It was a time when schools looked the other way and even encouraged some students to dropout.

TOM ZOBEL: There was an emphasis on, we have to have discipline in schools, and so we have got to get these students who aren’t going to behave in schools not to be in schools anymore.

TEQUILLA ROBINSON, student: Now, it just seems like, wow, they really didn’t care. But, I mean, I was like one of them problem children they just wanted to get rid of.

JOHN TULENKO: Shelbyville High School expelled Tequilla Robinson in ninth grade for skipping 32 days of school. A few years later while working fast food, she caught a glimpse of her future.

TEQUILLA ROBINSON: A year-and-a-half into Waffle House, there was a woman there that worked there for 26 years. And I’m like, wow, I’ve got to go back to school. I’m like, I do not want to be like that.

TOM ZOBEL: Life has been hard for them. And they tell us that. You know, you’ll run into one or two or three here on the street, see them at the store or something, and they will say, biggest mistake I ever made. I wish I would have stayed in school.

JOHN TULENKO: Tequilla went back and just earned her GED. Now she’s studying to be a nurse. Shelbyville High School learned its lesson, too. The Time magazine story helped spark a dramatic shift in attitude.

TOM ZOBEL: It is now much more of, okay, let’s sit down and talk. What do we need to do to help you? What kind of things can we do to make sure that you’re going to get graduated in four years?

ANDY HENSLEY, assistant principal, Shelbyville High School: Here’s the board, John.

JOHN TULENKO: The board, right.

More attention is being paid. . .

What do we got going on here?

. . . to identifying the students at risk of dropping out.

ANDY HENSLEY: These are kids right here that I am most concerned about graduating.

JOHN TULENKO: Assistant principal Andy Hensley.

ANDY HENSLEY: Obviously, I call it the watch list. So I’m watching them. I’m checking their grades. I’m — my eyes are on them constantly.

JOHN TULENKO: What gets a student on this list?

ANDY HENSLEY: If they are behind credit-wise, where we know they have got to make up some credits. They might need to what I call run the table, where they have got to get every credit possible for every period.

JOHN TULENKO: Watch lists have proliferated in high schools, owing largely to No Child Left Behind. The federal education law penalizes schools that fail to raise graduation rates.

To get its potential dropouts back on track, Shelbyville turned to technology. In this classroom at a local college, high school students in danger of dropping out can make up the courses they failed, and take new ones on computers.

Melissa Lakes runs the program.

MELISSA LAKES, Shelbyville Schools: It’s at their own pace. It doesn’t make them move on until they’re ready to move on. It doesn’t nag at them for not getting it right the first time around. You know, it’s just — it’s whatever they need.

JOHN TULENKO: Nationwide, school districts seeking to raise graduation rates have embraced this alternative approach called online credit recovery.

Shelbyville runs three-hour classes, five days a week, with afternoon sessions for busy students like Kayla Owsley.

KAYLA OWSLEY: It used to be I would take my daughter to school at like 6:00 in the morning. Now I can spend all morning with her, feed her breakfast. And she can spend most of the day with me. I can feel how much more relief I have off my back. I’m not so stressed out all the time.

MICHAEL MAUPIN: It’s a lot better than regular high school.

JOHN TULENKO: Michael Maupin has been in the program for two years.

MICHAEL MAUPIN: Here, you can listen to music. You don’t have as many people out here bugging you, or you don’t have your teacher talking the whole class period.

MELISSA LAKES: Most of these kids, just 50 minutes, bell, 50 minutes, bell, going from class to class, it just — they stop listening after second period. They just — they’re not engaged. They’re not getting a lot out of it. Every kid learns differently. And it’s not a negative if a kid learns differently. It’s okay. We just have to find a way to reach that kid.

JOHN TULENKO: Inside Shelbyville’s original red brick schoolhouse, the district created another dropout prevention program, this one aimed at students who’ve been suspended or expelled. Now they too can take their classes on computers.

Jason West directs the program.

JASON WEST, Shelbyville Schools: This allows them to stay on track, catch back up, and graduate on time, hopefully with their class.

JOHN TULENKO: At each of the computer centers, students track their own progress. Every time they pass a course, they tear a tab off these sheets, and the tabs go quickly.

MICHAEL MAUPIN: Here your work is a lot easier.

JOHN TULENKO: Easier? What do you mean?

MICHAEL MAUPIN: How do I put this? Out here, you can get a credit in half-a-week, a week, a couple of days.

KAYLA OWSLEY: It took me about two weeks to get one class done.

JOHN TULENKO: Have you seen kids move through the material quickly?

JASON WEST: I have.

JOHN TULENKO: What are we talking about?

JASON WEST: I’d say we’re looking at a month, to month-and-a-half.

JOHN TULENKO: It’s quicker, advocates say, because it breaks with the traditional model of schooling, which requires everyone to sit through semester-long courses, even though some students can master the material faster.

Computer-based courses cost Shelbyville $32,500 a year. Reports of students earning easy credits in other places have prompted questions about whether schools are getting their money’s worth.

JOHN TULENKO: For folks who might look at this and think, this looks like a scam, what do you say to those folks?

JASON WEST: I think the work is real. It’s, you know, based on state standards. These kids are given an option. They’re giving an alternative. The traditional classroom didn’t work for them.

Now, does that mean we should, you know, write them off and what life do they have for the next 50 years? They’re willing to put in the work. I think this is a great opportunity for those kids.

JOHN TULENKO: Since starting its dropout prevention programs in 2006, Shelbyville has raised its graduation rate from 75 percent to 90 percent.

GWEN IFILL: American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

We have posted a blog online about strategies for keeping students in schools, including more from our interview with the teacher who runs the computer program.