OTTUMWA — Raising the graduation rate at Ottumwa High School starts with the youngest class.
The Ninth Grade Incentive Party wasn't about who had the highest test scores or perfect attendance. In fact, kids could have a C- average in school and still be invited. It was to reward kids for sticking with the program.
"This year, 91 percent of our ninth-graders are on track to graduate," said OHS Associate Principal Steve Zimmerman. "Before the Freshman Academy started, it was in the 70s."
The Freshman Academy was one of the responses to a demand from the Ottumwa community: Raise our graduation rate. On track means students are working toward 12 credits this year. They'll be monitored again next year, and the years after that, too.
On Tuesday, freshmen worked on devouring more than three dozen pizzas during their party, played basketball or jumped into a bounce house. Out of 290 students in ninth grade, 130 were able to attend. Though Zimmerman wants that number raised, he knows there have been improvements.
In the first decade of the 21st century, OHS was listed by the Department of Education as having one of the lowest graduation rates in the state. In 2003, Ottumwa's graduation rate was the second lowest out of more than 300 school districts. Later, in 2008, the district had the worst dropout rate in Iowa.
Administrators, teachers and parents worked on developing a strategy to bring those numbers up. Zimmerman and fellow administrator Scott Maas were on the team. The goal was to develop a long-term plan.
When they started checking to see whether students would graduate, high school counselors found that students with too few credits were also those more likely to give up rather than catch up. The plan for the academy is that students are encouraged to keep up. In fact, Eidahl said, when the school investigated the theory, they checked toward the beginning of the 2011 school year and saw 80 percent of students were on pace to graduate. They compared that percentage to the graduation rate at the end of the school year. They were the same.