OTTUMWA —  The Ottumwa School District is looking at reducing high school dropout rates by intervening earlier in at-risk students’ journey.

Vern Reed and Superintendent Mike McGrory spoke to the board this week about a pilot program for ninth- and 10th-grade off-site alternative school.

“One of the things we identified is that right now, we’re having too many kids fall through the cracks in ninth and 10th grade,” McGrory said. “What tends to happen for students that are under-resourced students is that ninth grade is critical and probably make or break as far as whether they’re going to graduate or not.”

He said that if a district isn’t flexible enough to meet their needs or they don’t have a good experience, they tend to drop out.

“You’re probably seeing 60-70 students that drop out on a yearly basis. Those students within that 60 or 70, a majority are probably our ninth- and 10-graders, and we feel that this proposal will address that gap and better serve our students that are in those situations that are at risk of dropping out,” McGrory said.

“I’ll tell you from experience that I came from a smaller district to this larger district,” Reed said. “And a smaller district, you can focus more top-down, 12th, 11th, immediate needs and not lose as many ninth- and 10th-graders. But that isn’t true in a bigger district.”

Right now, he said, the district currently has two major programs for intervention for at-risk students: the ACA at Indian Hills, serving about 50 students, and the Transitions program for seventh and eighth grade, currently serving seven students.

“Here at Evans, I’ve talked to a lot of teachers about the culture and how it’s different, and they say it’s improved,” said Principal Aaron Ruff. “What the data says is that we have dropped from about 60% for office referrals since Transitions has started. So it’s benefited those students to have an appropriate setting, but it’s also benefitted our culture and our morale here.”

Ruff said he hopes the Transitions number stays steady but is has the capacity to expand to around 20 students if necessary.

“Transitions has allowed us to serve a group of kids for whom it just wasn’t quite working here at Evans,” Reed said, saying alternative just means different and not all kids learn the same way. “In everything we’re doing, we have to keep getting better, and that’s part of the focus of bringing this idea of a pilot for ninth- and 10th-grade students.”

He said in discussions with multiple people, including McGrory, that students dropping out begins at lower levels.

“What things can we do essentially to better connect our kids to the Ottumwa School District?” he said. “If we can connect one of our students to an adult that cares, we increase the odds that they graduate. As a community, knowing that a lot of students will stay here in Ottumwa, our ability to do so doesn’t just benefit our kids or the school, it benefits our community.”

Reed said the pilot would start in the second semester with administrators and other officials identifying 10 freshmen that they’re in the most danger of losing. “Now please understand, they are probably more, but we have to pilot with something that we can have control over and build in a way that’s sustainable. If we put too many kids into something like this, we are more apt to fail, and we’re just not OK with failing our kids.”

Reed said those students would start in Transition in a morning session to make up core credits.

Students would have different options in the afternoon: returning to the high school to take elective classes or a school-to-work option, which would be expanded with more businesses as COVID-19 protocols are lessened.

“The idea is to have multiple businesses who are part of our options for our kids … that allow our students to learn what it takes to become great employees in the Ottumwa area.

The 10th-grade program would be similar. “In this case, we follow the same procedure. The key is the accurate identification of students who could use more or different support to get through our educational process.”

The pilot of 10 sophomore students would attend either morning or afternoon classes in space donated by Indian Hills to focus on making up core credits and moving them forward.

He said the options in the opposite part of the day for this program include both the school-to-work option and electives at OHS and partaking in the Job Corps program.

Reed said that option would benefit students by giving them CTE-type credits and graduate with a high school diploma and certification in a career pathway from Job Corps. “Because they are a Job Corps and OHS student, Job Corps takes care of their education at Indian Hills.”

The program would also strengthen the relationship between the district, Indian Hills and Job Corps, Reed said.

“I could not be more proud of what they’re doing,” he said of the current ACA students. “We still have a ways to go because it’s always an uphill battle, but these kids, they’re worth the effort.”

In other business:

• The board heard updates on Bulldog Virtual Learning. Numbers for changes at trimester and semester were given. At the elementary level, 266 of 363 BVL students opted to continue with 30 new enrollments for a total of 296 BVL students in the new trimester. At Evans, 41 students returned to face-to-face learning for the second semester while 88 opted to enroll in BVL, for a net gain of 47 virtual learners. OHS saw 48 return to face to face with 99 moving to BVL; BVL had a net gain of 51 new students for the second semester at the high school level. They were also updated with how lessons and classes are offered as well as how attendance will be counted. At OHS, all core classes are currently offered with select electives being offered in the second semester. By fall, all OHS classes will be offered virtually.

• CFO John Berg gave a financial update, highlighting some sections of the monthly report. The activity fund saw a large reduction in revenue, attributed to a loss in gate admissions, but was largely offset by a reduction in expenditures, attributed to fewer transportation needs. “So year over year, we’re actually sitting a little better.”

Capital projects were down about a half-million dollars, he said, but that was due to the addition at Pickwick.

The big change was nutrition, which has collected $861,000 so far this year, up nearly $200,000 from last year. “This is the USDA funding meals for all students,” Berg said. “We’ve had such an issue with unpaid meal debt and just struggling to handle that. Now we don’t have to worry about that, and we’re getting full reimbursement for all the meals we’re serving.”

He said this year could effectively run as a trial for expanding the district’s community eligibility provision “if the numbers were to warrant that in the future.”

— Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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