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Alternative options help county graduation rates make the grade

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By MEGAN JAMES & CYRUS LEVESQUE

ADDISON COUNTY — Only about 70 percent of high school students in the United States graduate in four years with a regular diploma, and about 1.2 million students drop out every year, according to a new report issued by America’s Promise Alliance.

By that standard, students in Addison County are doing exceptionally well.

Over the last five years the dropout rates at the four local high schools — Middlebury Union High School, Mount Abraham Union High School, Otter Valley Union High School and Vergennes Union High School — have all gradually fallen or hovered around already tiny percentages.

Counselors and administrators at all four local high schools credit some of their success in keeping youngsters in school to the fact that they address the different learning styles of students in different ways. Catching potential dropout students early on and engaging them in alternative education programs allows students to learn in nontraditional ways and offers them a sense of belonging in a different community, said MUHS guidance counselor Mark Thuma.

“The kids who feel disenfranchised with our system can find that sense of community with an alt ed program,” Thuma said.

Vermont kids start out in school with one advantage — geography. The Alliance’s report, which was based on school district data from the 2003-2004 school year, found that students in suburban and rural public high schools are more likely to graduate than their counterparts in urban public high schools, only about half of whom receive diplomas.

Local students have it even better. The most recent data from the 2005-2006 school year shows MUHS, MAUHS and VUHS all below the state average of 2.85 percent, and OVUHS just a hair above it.

Still, if 2.85 percent of Vermont ninth-graders drop out before they complete 12th grade, that means that more than 2,600 Vermont children will drop out this year.

There are plenty of reasons a student might drop out of high school, but poverty and coming from a family that puts no emphasis on education are two of the biggest, said Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Bill Mathis. These factors are strained under the high stakes accountability system of the No Child Left Behind law and the assumption that there is only one path to success.

Fortunately in Vermont, and in Addison County especially, students who might otherwise fail in a traditional classroom can choose from a wealth of alternative education programs that allow them to engage learning in different ways.

At the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center, for example, guidance counselor Marie Eddy works with plenty of students whose learning styles don’t necessarily line up with traditional teaching styles. At the career center, those students have a chance to shine in other ways.

More importantly, they become part of a smaller community where they may have a better chance of engaging with an adult mentor who can guide them to graduation.

“Everyone needs a mentor, somebody who cares about them and can give them encouragement,” Eddy said.

Creating programs that give students that opportunity has been a priority for the four local high schools in recent years, and their low dropout rates are proof their efforts are paying off.

VERGENNES

In the 2005-2006 academic year, VUHS had the lowest dropout rate among the four area high schools: 1.08 percent, well under the statewide dropout rate of 2.85 percent.

VUHS Principal Ed Webbley credits the low dropout rate in part to a number of alternatives to a classroom setting. Webbley said that VUHS’s special education system and behavioral programs are unusually strong. He cited the Walden Project, an outdoor education effort in partnership with the Willowell Foundation, as one of several alternatives for students who don’t do well in the traditional education system.

In the Walden Project, students attend class three days a week in the woods in a wooded piece of land in Monkton owned by the nonprofit Willowell Foundation. Classes usually begin with reading a passage from 19th century naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Most class work is in the humanities, but the program also takes advantage of the outdoor setting for some biology and earth science lessons. In addition, the Walden Project class goes to Burlington about once a week for a cultural event like a play or a visit to a museum.

“My guess is, Walden helps quite a lot,” Webbley said. “Those are the kids who go crazy in the four walls of a classroom.”

Alternative education programs can point to some positive results, even with the most difficult cases. Webbley mentioned one student who recently graduated despite long odds. The student was sent from one alternative education program to another and didn’t last long in any of them.

In the end, the student found a niche that included creating an independent study in which the student shadowed a police officer to investigate an interest in law enforcement. That independent study earned the student the last credit needed to graduate.

Webbley said that student’s experience was extreme, but that school officials regularly work with nontraditional students to help them stay in school and graduate.

“They are doing all sorts of strange things to get them academic credit,” Webbley said. “We’re lucky to have some very imaginative people.”

MOUNT ABE

At Mount Abe in Bristol, alternate programs include personalized learning plans for some students, as well as the Upward Bound program and the Eagles alternative education program, both of which rely on getting the students themselves to think about their future.

“It’s getting students thinking about higher goals, about life after high school,” said Principal Paulette Bogan.

In addition, Mount Abe is more flexible than some high schools. In most cases, if a student drops out of a high school and regrets that decision, getting a General Educational Development diploma, or GED, might be the only option. But Bogan said that in a few cases, Mount Abe students have dropped out but only needed a few more classes to graduate, so the school made arrangements for them to finish those classes and earn a diploma.

According to the Vermont Department of Education, Mount Abe’s dropout rate was 1.38 percent or below between 2002 and 2006 — well under the statewide figure of 2.85 percent.

OTTER VALLEY

Though Otter Valley’s dropout rate has been above or near the state average for the last few years, it has decreased almost every year since 2002, falling from 5.49 percent in 2002-2003 to 3.05 percent in 2005-2006.

OV Principal Dana Cole-Levesque attributed the improvement to the school’s commitment to providing diverse alternative education programs.

“We work really hard to make sure every kid has an opportunity to succeed in some way,” he said.

Between the Moosalamoo Experiential High School, the Foxcroft Farm Harvest Program and a community education program, OV has developed a variety of alternatives to the traditional classroom over the years.

And according to Cole-Levesque, there is more in the works. He is currently in the planning stages of a freshman academy program that would help ease the transition from middle school to high school, a troubling time for many students teetering toward dropping out.

The program would incorporate interdisciplinary instruction with projects using the Brandon Hawk Hill conservation lands adjacent to the high school.

OV is also planning to expand an interdisciplinary curriculum currently in place in the middle school — in which students work with an art teacher to create projects that unify their math, social studies and English classes — into the high school.

“It’s all about setting certain expectations for learning and understanding that people have different ways of getting there,” Cole-Levesque said.

MIDDLEBURY

MUHS’s dropout rate over the last five years has fallen in small increments from 2.44 percent in 2002-2003 to 1.44 percent in 2005-2006, staying below the state average each of those years.

A determining factor in the falling dropout rate, according to Principal Bill Lawson, is the school’s educational support team, a group of teachers and guidance counselors who meet once a week to identify students who may be struggling to stay in school and work together to help them turn around.

Other alternative education programs occur through partnerships, such as one MUHS has with the Addison County Parent-Child Center.

Thuma recalled a student, one he considers a great success, who participated in a few of Middlebury’s alternative programs and graduated in six years.

“He needed the extra time, and he did it,” Thuma said. “If he knew that he were counted as a dropout, he would be very irritated.”

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