Graduates prove worth of at-risk program
De Soto High School Principal Debbie Lynn said she would feel an extra measure of accomplishment when Chris Dabbs and Ryan Rodriguez march across the stage Saturday to receive their diplomas.
Lynn said she was proud the class of 80 graduating seniors that includes two National Merit Scholars. But, she said she and her staff got added satisfaction from graduates who were part of the school's alternative, or at-risk, program.
"You can't take credit for National Merit Scholars that's genetics and parents," she said "These kiddos you can say, 'We did that.'"
The program has one simple objective:
"The goal is to reach students who might not make it through high school," she said.
Actually, there was never any question Dabbs would graduate. The question was whether he would do so with his fellow seniors this spring.
Dabbs is one of 14 students in the high school's at-risk program this year. De Soto High School teachers recommend students for the program to a care team based on poor school attendance, problem behavior, attitude, general disinterest in school or other risk factors, Lynn said.
The underlying problems are as numerous as the students enrolled, said the alternative program teacher Brad Qualls. He has had students in the class because they've missed school with illnesses or pregnancies. Others returned to school after dropping out or spending time in juvenile detention.
"They're the students who fall into the forgotten category at many schools," he said. "It's a problem that tends to get swept under the carpet. The thought is, 'They'll eventually drop out and go get their GED."
Sometimes students struggle because of something as basic as poor study habits or time-management skills.
Whatever the reason, Lynn said the care team designed a plan to help students overcome their difficulties.
"We look at how and where they struggle and adapt their curriculum, adapt their school life or whatever they need," she said. "Along with that, we give them the skills necessary to go on to the next level."
What Rodriguez needed to learn was self discipline.
"I just didn't do my homework," he said. "I didn't know if I was going to graduate on time."
Dabbs was in a similar situation. His care plan program allowed him to progress at his own pace, which helped find the focus to catch up, he said.
"This year I'm actually quite interested in my classes," he said. "Going at my own pace allows me to learn a lot more than normally."
Another factor was Qualls, who acted as a "forced Day Planner," Dabbs said. Qualls made him set aside time for homework, he said.
In addition to teaching alternative classes, Qualls' job involves keeping track of his students' progress in their regular classrooms.
"A lot of times, teachers e-mail me when students need to get projects done on time or have tests coming up," he said. "I keep track of what needs to be done. We work on a lot of organizational things."
The alternative classroom offers the students a comfortable place to catch up, but it is not meant to be a place that shields them from the regular classroom environment, Lynn said.
"We don't alter their graduation plan. They graduate with the same number of credits as their classmates," she said. "Our goal is they stay in the at-risk program for a minimum amount of time possible. We want to treat their behaviors and give them the study habits they need to progress."
Dabbs and Rodriguez both brought an important motivating factor to the program, Qualls said. They wanted to graduate this spring so they could move ahead with their career goals.
Dabbs joined the Army and will leave for basic training three weeks after graduation. Rodriguez wants to be a firefighter. To realize that ambition, he plans to start working on an associate degree in fire science at Johnson County Community College next fall.
Rodriguez is confident he can translate the lessons learned in the alternative classroom to his future studies.
"I think I've learned what I need to do," he said. "I keep on top of my homework now."
That's the goal, Lynn said. Although there are a few special education students in the program, most of the students are of average or above average intelligence, she said.
"I tell the students there is no alternative program in life," she said. "We teach them how to live by the rules of society, because that's what they have to do in the real world."
Underclassmen are placed in the program with the goal of learning the behaviors they need to succeed and leaving "at the minimum time possible," Lynn said.
Even while in the program, they are limited to two at-risk class a day. The rest of the time, they remain in their regular classes.
Qualls is leaving De Soto for a high school in Missouri, where he will realize his dream of becoming a head football coach. Lynn has already found his replacement in Matt Jones, who has four years of experience working with at-risk students.
The decision to hire Jones reconfirmed the district's commitment to the program, despite continuing questions concerning school finance, Lynn said.
"Technically, this would be the first program on the hit list," she said. "This is an extra. But the district is committed to helping every child. We have the success to back that up.
"We graduated seven at-risk students last year out of 67 seniors. That's 10 percent. That's unheard of. I was at Olathe South where we had 750 seniors, and we never had seven at-risk graduates."