By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer
---- — 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.
The plan would have to be enacted with the youngest students. That raised one potentially painful drawback — the idea wouldn’t pay off for years. Still, the school board told the district to go for it.
According to DOE figures, the Ottumwa graduation rate has been climbing five years in a row.
The Freshman Academy, Superintendent Davis Eidahl often says, is part of building relationships. Kids have an adviser they see almost every day — one adult who wants to know how they're doing, what problems they're running into and what they can do to help. In 2008, there was no Freshman Academy. Ottumwa High School saw 133 students drop out. In 2012, with the program in full swing, there were only 50.
As for the party Tuesday, Zimmerman has learned that students will want to come again next semester. And they'll tell their friends who weren't invited.
"We've found that students who missed out worked harder," he said.
— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark