Nationally, an average of 70% of high school students graduate annually, leaving about 30% who do not, says Dr. Dondelayo White, director of student support services at Evanston Township High School. ETHS’ numbers are somewhat higher. According to the 2013-14 Report on Student Achievement, an average of nearly 89% of ETHS students graduate on time. While that number is higher than both the state and national average, it still leaves more than 10% of Evanston students without a high school diploma.
“We have to address that and the implications it has on our District,” Dr. White said in an interview with the RoundTable.
On Jan. 26, ETHS took steps to do just that. “The Alt School,” the current name of the ETHS alternative school, opened on campus. Its stated goal is helping current students catch up on credits needed for graduation while also reaching out to former students who want a second chance to earn their diploma. Before this year, students who were behind in graduation credits were referred to outside programs. Administrators and staff at ETHS felt, though, that they could do the job in-house, so the new program was created. Details of the newly opened school were presented to the District 202 School Board at its Feb. 23 meeting.
Students can enter The Alt School in two ways. Internally, current ETHS attendees are referred by a grade-level team consisting of a social worker, psychologist, dean, counselor and potentially other staff close to the student who have discussed the student’s progress and found that other support services have not worked. These students enter The Alt School to catch up on credits and can ideally “work their way back to the main stream,” said Dr. White. A Mobility Report, which tracks students who leave ETHS without graduating, helps staff locate former students who left without earning a diploma and approach them with the opportunity to finish their studies and graduate. Students in The Alt School range in age from 16-21.
Those in the program “are highly intelligent, capable people but social dynamics have severely impacted their academic progress,” said Dr. White. Sometimes students do not thrive in traditional classrooms for various reasons she added.
Students in The Alt School attend either a morning or afternoon session, each of which consists of three periods. The self-paced program allows attendees to focus on one class at a time if they wish or up to 5 courses depending on the student’s individual needs and desires. Many of the students also hold jobs and go to work when not at school. Currently, the program offers an English and Independent Wellness course, both of which are computer based. A teacher is present in the classroom to assist students and facilitate the grading process. Looking ahead, the school plans to expand the curriculum to include instructor-based learning and a wider range of classes. An evening session will also become available.
Aside from working toward a diploma, students are also receiving support for post-secondary planning, said Dr. Paula Miller, associate principal for Student Services, to the Board. Alt School students meet bi-weekly with ETHS College and Career Center staff to discuss future plans. Y.O.U. and the Youth Job Center also provide support and guidance. “The goal needs to be bigger than completing high school,” Dr. White told the Board.
Currently the school is at capacity with 24 students. Next year, the plan is to nearly double that to 46 students and also add a second teacher.
Doug Holt asked about the financials and if there is any new revenue being generated by the school. Bill Stafford, ETHS chief financial officer, said the school is “reallocating resources” currently and that “we’ll have to see how this goes. This year costs are minimal but we will have to see. It’s an organic process.” The costs are “very do-able, but give us a year or two to see how it all evolves.”
“Some have been critical of the high school around youth who are not engaged, not connected,” said Bill Geiger. “This is a tangible, important piece of evidence of our commitment to reach out to students. The whole community needs to rally around these youth.”
“We’ve brought people back. Not too many schools chase people down,” said Gretchen Livingston, Noard president.
“We are sending a message (to students) that we believe in you, you can do this, we will help you and failure is not an option,” said Mark Metz. This is “truly uplifting, a great service to the community.”