How to Create an Award-Winning
Westerville’s school serves disenfranchised students, and grad rates soar to 75 percent. By Dr. Scott Ebbrecht
For many decades, Westerville City School District in Ohio was viewed as an affluent, predominately white suburban district. Yet during the past 15 years, the district has evolved to include students from more than 70 countries who speak a vast range of languages and hail from a mix of races, culture, and socioeconomic groups.
Such an explosion of growth at varying economic levels has brought with it both challenges and opportunities. The diversity has led to a culturally rich population offering a variety of perspectives within a unique melting pot. Currently, the district serves students living within a 52-square-mile area located just northeast of Columbus. Its enrollment of about 14,800 students makes WCSD the state’s 11th largest school district.
In order to meet the diverse needs of the district’s students and families, especially for those disenfranchised from the traditional school experience, the WCSD alternative high school program—Educational Options for Success (EOS)—was established with Alternative Challenge grant money.
The program supports students who have been expelled from school; students who are over-age and under-credited and are considering dropping out; students who have dropped out and/or experienced failure in a charter school alternative; and students whose personal schedule and responsibilities will not accommodate a classroom experience during a traditional school day.
The district knew something needed to change during the 2003–2004 school year when data indicated that more than 600 of its high school students were at risk of school failure and/or dropping out. At the time, 70–100 high school students were being expelled annually, 146 high school students were enrolled in charter schools, and every year approximately 10 percent (450) of high school students didn’t earn enough credits to advance to the next grade level.
Not only were these circumstances inhibiting students from succeeding in school, future careers, and life in general, but they were straining teachers in the classroom. According to recent research, the annual cost for a teacher to deal with a disruptive student for one hour each day amounts to more $27,000 per classroom in lost instructional time.
The general working assumption of district educators was that the problems facing these students can most often be attributed to a poor match between the school and the student. The primary goal for creating EOS was to facilitate successful school completion through the application of evidence-based instructional practices and the development of life skills and academic enablers. By fostering interpersonal skills, motivation, engagement, and study skills, EOS drives student success in both their school and community environments, while also supporting their transition from the EOS program.
EOS was created to serve the needs of at-risk students by providing a highly structured and supportive alternative instructional setting. The program uses Apex Learning digital curriculum as an alternative instructional delivery system and offers tiered support services based on the degree of student need. The purpose of the program is to assist targeted groups in gaining the skills required to earn course credits and, when applicable, provide assistance toward passing and thus meeting all state graduation tests/requirements.
By preventing seriously at-risk students from dropping out, EOS allows over-aged and under-credited students to earn sufficient credits and/or to pass state exams so they can graduate, and allows students who have already dropped out to return to school and finish. The program offers five specific services to both the student and his or her family: assessment, education, accountability, counseling, and parental engagement.
The facility in which EOS is located once served as the WCSD administrative offices. The interior of the building was redesigned with input from students. The design was specifically developed to provide a more professional environment for students. They made it clear they wanted to come to a place that felt more like a work environment, fully equipped with a coffee station and a structure designed to minimize all sound.
Incorporating a combination of Apex Learning digital curriculum, blended learning, face-to-face mentoring, and community service, EOS has enrolled more than 1,300 students. Nearly 89 percent of the students who enroll at the EOS earn credit or graduate. Initially, the district went from graduating 13.5 percent of a defined disenfranchised student population to consistently graduating nearly 75 percent.
The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University recently conducted a study on the EOS program to evaluate its effectiveness.
EOS was identified as a model program for dropout prevention, receiving the highest research rating: Strong Evidence of Effectiveness. Dr. Ed Lentz, University of Cincinnati (2011), cited “The fact that EOS assists two groups of students who either would not be educated for at least a semester (expellees) or who have already dropped out of school is commendable.
“Since its inception, nearly 90 percent of students beginning EOS have completed the program; a program, it is noted, with very strict standards of conduct,” Lentz said in his report. “Outcomes for those completing the program are highly positive and far better than those not completing the program. This fact adds weight to a conclusion that EOS has prevented negative educational outcomes. Success with these groups has proven difficult in general; yet, EOS success is clear and is repeated every academic year.”
The program focuses on supporting a student’s need to maintain an adequate rate of academic progress; maintain consistent attendance; improve motivation for school success by decreasing incidents of repeated failure and feelings of alienation; assure ongoing adult support and mentoring/coaching; and address mental health, substance use, delinquency and/or deviant disruptive behavioral concerns. District officials involve parents to the fullest extent possible in order to promote positive socialization and adjustment for adolescents.
Today, the EOS program continues to improve the graduation rate, attendance rate, and the district’s overall ability to connect with and motivate disenfranchised students who may otherwise undermine efforts to provide a safe, positive learning environments for all students.
What’s important is that these students now have a choice to participate in EOS. The program continues to inspire and prepare students for life, supporting them with college preparation or career exploration to get them to the next level.
Dr. Scott Ebbrecht is the director of alternative education and assessment for Ohio’s Westerville City Schools. He serves as a school administrator, an organizational leadership consultant, and a public speaker on meeting the needs of disenfranchised students, school improvement planning. and conducting cultural analyses within organizations.
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