While most seniors at area high schools are preparing for the graduation march, others have taken a different path.
Dropout rates across the Cambria-Somerset region vary greatly from school to school. But each district faces the challenge: Convincing teenagers to stay in school until they reach graduation.
It’s a problem shared by all schools regardless of geography, enrollment and demographics. Even districts with low dropout statistics know that students are walking their halls, thinking about leaving school before earning their diplomas.
State law says students can legally sign out of school at age 18. At 17, compulsory attendance laws no longer are in effect and a parent can sign a child out. A parent can sign out a 16-year-old if the parent can show a general employment certificate and that the student is working during school hours.
Administrators agree: There is no easy answer.
‘Making that connection’
Ferndale Area School District had a 1.6 percent dropout rate for the 2006-07 school year, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
That put Ferndale at the middle of the pack for Cambria County.
Superintendent Christine Oldham believes the key to keeping kids in school is her district’s size.
“I do believe having this small size helps us get kids through graduation,” she said. “We are in close contact with them and (with) parents, and we want them to know we are here to support those students who are struggling and find themselves in unfortunate situations.”
Each year, the state Department of Education releases a list of public secondary school dropouts.
The data are collected through the public-school enrollment report and public dropout survey. The numbers provide an overview of the fall enrollment and the total number of dropouts throughout a single school year.
Ferndale is set to graduate 56 seniors this year, should everyone qualify.
Oldham said it’s important to look at student development in all grade levels.
“The 9th- and 10th-grade years are critical in making that connection, because if students don’t connect, then that is when they begin to make the decision about leaving,” she said. “That decision to leave will impact them the rest of their lives, because once you drop out, you drop out.”
Oldham said the district has put programs in place to allow students to regain class credits lost because of failing grades. Students have the options of going online or attending summer school to improve their grades.
“We make home visits from the elementary level on up and are knocking on doors making sure we are staying on top of everything,” she said. “We want parents to know we care.”
The district offers after-school tutoring with transportation provided. For students who need to work, Ferndale has a wavier program that allows students to attend classes in the morning and work in the afternoons.
The “Be Aware” program comprises 10 staff members who watch for students who are falling through the cracks and seek ways to help them succeed. The district works closely with a social worker and utilizes Goodwill Industries’ dropout prevention programs.
‘Having a plan in place’
Amy Spangler, a Ferndale guidance counselor, said the school’s motto is “big enough to challenge, but small enough to care.”
“We see students who have personal issues and are just overwhelmed, and schoolwork elevates their stress,” she said.
“We encourage them to continue. ... It really comes down to having a plan in place and finding out what concerns the students have and how can we help.” Spangler said. “We can’t save them all every time, but we try.”
When students decide to leave school, Oldham said, they probably don’t realize the long-term ramifications.
“We show them how their earnings will be impacted, because they don’t understand that making $10,000 a year is not sustaining enough to raise a family,” she said.
Although Oldham believes the programs Ferndale has in place are helping, she knows they can always do more.
“We take it personally when a kid comes to us and wants to drop out,” she said, “and we are basically begging them to stay at that point.”
Like their counterparts at Ferndale, administrators at North Star School District are working to stop dropouts.
The high school had a 0.9 percent dropout rate for the 2006-07 school year – about the average for districts in Somerset County. Several Somerset County schools, including Conemaugh Township, Shade-Central City and Turkeyfoot Valley, reported zero dropouts for that school year.
All four of North Star’s dropouts that year were male.
“There are red flags that go off,” North Star High School Principal Joseph Bradley said. “Certainly, we try to address it before the senior year.”
Absenteeism is a major indicator that crops up when students reach their junior and senior years, he said.
Excessive absences can lead to conferences with parents to identify a problem, Bradley said.
“Sometimes, they want to go to work. Sometimes, it is a school avoidance issue, or it may be cultural,” he said. “Sometimes, that blue-collar work ethic means a student sees working before he gets a high school diploma as the way to go.”
A lack of parental support can make administrators’ efforts to keep students in school that much more trying, he said.
“They will think, ‘I’m working. I’m making good money and I have the support of my family,’ ” Bradley said.
Fighting a trend
At Berlin Brothersvalley School District, students learn about personal budgets and financial literacy.
But more-aggressive efforts may be needed: The high school’s dropout percentages were the highest in the past two years for Somerset and Cambria counties.
In the 2005-06 school year, Berlin had a 7.7 percent dropout rate among 299 high school students. The dropout rate dipped to 7 percent of 302 high school students in 2006-07. But those percentages are nearly double the rate for urban Greater Johnstown, although the city school had many more total dropouts.
The bulk of those leaving Berlin were transferring elsewhere or aiming for a GED, high school Principal Thomas Vent said. All the 23 dropouts in 2005 and 2006, he added, were students who said they either left to get a GED or to pursue other education. But the school hasn’t tracked where the students went or whether they followed through with their plans.
“We do have kids who drop out,” Vent said.
“Most of them left for other education.”
Cultural factors also may be countering the school’s efforts. Some students still leave to help out on the family farm.
But, Vent added, “most of the true dropouts say they just don’t like school.” Teachers, counselors and administrators work together to find a way to keep those students on track, finding their strengths and pointing them in the right direction.
“It could be as simple as looking at their scores,” he said.
Poor performance in one class can make a student embarrassed to continue, Vent said.
“They think, ‘Why should I be humiliated?’ ” he said. “Kids are very cruel to one another, and we sometimes forget that.”
‘Spark that fire’
Vent said that after a student asks to drop out, teachers check into his or her grades and discipline records to see what may have sparked a problem.
“I truly believe everybody can either turn a kid on to education or turn a kid off,” he said. “If we want them to become lifelong learners, it’s up to us to spark that fire.”
Sometimes, he said, administrators and teachers are working against parents’ wishes.
One tactic is for teachers to inspire students to learn by helping them choose viable career paths, such as engineering.
“We try to break down what you need to get to that level,” Vent said. “Anything worth having is worth working for. We have to show them that.”
Berlin High School guidance counselor Christy McMillen said many students spend summers helping with the family farm, and some – with their family’s support – choose to stay at home rather than return to school.
“We do everything we can to keep kids from dropping out,” she said.
Students struggling with grades can attend summer school. Tutoring is available to younger students, but there is only enough state funding to offer tutoring to students in middle school. After that, they can look for scholarship programs through regional programs, such as those offered at the Learning Lamp in Johnstown.
McMillen said teachers try to make themselves available before and after school to provide help for kids who request it. Administrators also monitor grades and notify parents if a student is in jeopardy of failing.
A work in progress
Greater Johnstown School District had the highest dropout rate in Cambria County at 4.0 percent, and Superintendent Barbara Parkins acknowledges that the district has a problem.
“Kids need to connect, and having a large district can make that hard,” she said. “They want to feel like they are a part of a team and important.”
Parkins said when a student wants to leave school, the first thing that happens is a meeting among counselors and administration. And students are consulted.
“We don’t want our students to think they can’t do this, because there is always a way,” she said. “Kids need to be here in school to succeed.”
If all Greater Johnstown seniors meet the requirements, 260 will receive diplomas in June.
Johnstown has an alternative school in place that allowing students to take core classes required by the state – reading, math, science and social studies – and still hold a job for a portion of the day. In addition, students may choose to enroll in the district’s online digital academy.
“It’s our version of cyber school, but the students are using the Johnstown curriculum,” Parkins said.
The After School Live! program assists high school students in realizing the importance of receiving a diploma, offers tutoring and explores potential careers.
Likewise, the Trojan College Access Program was established with the goal of assisting students in post-secondary education. They learn how to research schools, apply for loans and scholarships and register for the SAT/ACT exams.
“We want them interested in these types of programs early because we are seeing kids in ninth grade who feel defeated,” Parkins said. “So we are pushing seventh- and eighth-graders into career counseling and having them look at colleges.”
‘Looking at the needs’
She said the district’s 16 approved vocational programs are seeing success, with about 700 students enrolled.
“Kids are lucky to have this and, upon completion of a course, they receive a certificate,” she said.
The district also has on-site day-care facilities for students who have children, and offers a teen pregnancy program.
John Jubas, principal at East Side Elementary School and a community-relations coordinator, said it’s important to have parental involvement at all grade levels and that is the key to keeping kids in school.
“A survey with 80 questions went out to all parents asking what they expect from the teachers, what is good and what can be made better,” he said. “We are looking at the needs of each building.”
Jubas said the district is holding more open houses to attract parents and increasing their involvement.
There also is an occupational advancement committee that is made up of 150 community business members who are matched up with students who have an interest in a particular career.
The John B. Gunter Leadership program is a new initiative geared at sophomores and is about self-reflection and exploring challenges. Positive role models are brought in to share stories and offer encouragement.
“We are seeing an increase this year in our graduation numbers,” she said, “so I know what we are doing is working.”
‘It does take a village’
Portage Area School District had a zero percent dropout rate, the lowest in Cambria County in 2006-07. But even so, Superintendent Richard Bernazzoli believes some students will decide to leave school no matter what the district does to try to keep them.
“No district is turning a blind eye to this problem,” he said. “We can give these kids all the support in the world, but some of the them have such a sense of hopelessness that it doesn’t matter – because for them, school is so insignificant compared to what they are dealing with outside of here.”
Bernazzoli believes staying in school usually comes down to the family structure and not a student’s capability.
“We are dealing with a fairly low socio-economic population here, and those are the students who are at risk,” he said. “The economy comes into play because parents are out working two or three jobs to make ends meet and spending less time with the kids.”
A total of 74 seniors are expected to graduate at Portage this year.
High school Principal Ralph Cecere Jr. said at the beginning of each school year, he or the assistant principal meets with all seniors and their parents or guardians to discuss what needs to be done to receive a diploma.
“Communication is key, and we talk about what barriers are in place that could prevent graduation and brainstorm on how they can stay,” he said. “It gets very personal for us, because we want all 100 percent to graduate.”
The district has a credit-recovery program in place to help students reach graduation, and cooperative work agreements giving the student the opportunity to seek employment for a part of the day.
“We started running our own summer school program last year because we saw a need for it,” Bernazzoli said.
Students also have the option of entering into vocational education for hands-on learning that may be more suitable for students who struggle in a traditional classroom.
Bernazzoli knows there is more that can be done, and said it’s disheartening when the school loses a student.
“The invitation to return is always there, the door is always open,” he said.
Turkeyfoot Valley Area High School has reported a zero percent dropout rate for the past two years.
Superintendent Rick Toner credited teachers, administrators and parents for the accomplishment for small district, which this year will be graduating just 17 students.
The school has used independent study to help seniors finish. One example where that has worked is when a teenager finds out she is pregnant. Homeschooling and cyber school have become useful tools as well.
“We always try to work with a student,” Toner said. “Everybody tries to really take an interest in each child.
“It does take a village.”
While most seniors at area high schools are preparing for the graduation march, others have taken a different path.
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