Two years ago, Adam Johnson had a bad habit of skipping classes at Mount Douglas secondary.
Hanging out with friends and procrastinating on schoolwork lured the teen away a few hours per week, enough to raise red flags with school administration.
“It wasn’t an everyday thing, but skipping one or two classes per week builds up,” said Johnson. “You don’t realize until the end how much you’ve missed.”
Vice-principal Phil Pitre intervened and started asking questions to drill down to the core problems.
“The administration, especially Mr. Pitre, keep a close eye on me. It’s a school of 1,200 kids and he dedicates a lot of time keeping everyone on a straight path,” said Johnson, who is now on track to graduate next year.
“He questioned why I was missing quite a few classes. It wasn’t hostile, there weren’t threats, but it was embarrassing. He helped me realize skipping isn’t the way … to succeed.”
The 17-year-old is one of many students in SD61 who have shown “at risk” tendencies – poor grades or poor attendance – in terms of graduating on time, and who fell under an ongoing and aggressive strategy to make sure they stay on track. SD61 superintendent John Gaiptman calls it a “whatever-it-takes” mindset.
“We make it very hard to withdraw from school,” Gaiptman said. “We track at-risk students involved in things not helpful to graduate, or who are absent a lot, or are failing courses or are in danger of failing. Anything that might trip up a student who might not graduate.”
It’s a long-running policy that’s finally starting to pay off. For 2012-13, SD61’s six-year Dogwood completion rate hit a record high of 84.5 per cent, a measure of how many students graduate within six years of entering Grade 8.
In the 2000-01 school year, SD61 struggled with a completion rate of less than 70 per cent, more than six points below the provincial average. The following year, the district undertook fundamental reconfiguration to its grade structure – adding elementary grades to middle school (grades 6-9) and extending high school to four years (grades 9-12).
Pitre said having an accurate and timely database of attendance and grades is key to catching students who might slip away, especially in a large high school.
Administrators can also see attendance records from primary and middle schools, which tend to be better indicators of who will be at risk of not graduating.
“We ID students at risk mainly in the middle school level, but the data picks up red flags in Grades 1, 2 and 3. It’s amazingly accurate,” Pitre said.
“We talk to their teachers and facilitate with their parents. We involve whoever they need. It’s about checking up, it’s about conversation.”
Gaiptman noted that while serious problems can emerge for students in high school, the war over graduation is usually won or lost in early grades.
“It’s a lot easier in elementary and middle school to give foundation and focus to a student who needs extra support,” he said.
“We couldn’t do it without support we get from elementary and middle school teachers. If you start this in high school, it’s too late.”
SD 61 Six-year completion rate
2009-10: 72.9 per cent