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Schools Track Down Ex-Students

Ohanian Comment: Let's give the devil its due. Getting/forcing schools to take an interest in students they've pushed out is a good thing.

When Martha Crandall answered her home phone one school day in October, she heard Christopher Olley introduce himself as a diploma completion coordinator.

"At first it scared me because I thought he was a truancy guy and he was going to arrest me," she said.

Martha, 17, had already been down that road. She was placed with a truancy officer and a probation officer a year ago following long stretches of missed days at St. Paul's Central High School.

Since Olley started the new diploma completion program for the St. Paul district in August, he estimates he's tracked down about 300 former St. Paul students. So far 74, including Martha, have returned to school with the goal of graduating.

His sleuthing found another 70 former St. Paul students enrolled in districts across the state and the nation information important to the St. Paul district as it tries to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Law.

His work also has opened a window into the lives of young people who drop out of school and the challenges of getting them back.

"Most of my clients are that magic age of 17," he said.

A year or two before, they typically became discouraged by how far they'd fallen behind; many simply gave up on school.

"I feel sometimes they think it's a race, and if they're not going to win, they don't want to run it," he said.

A former Arlington High School basketball coach and social studies teacher, Olley has a gregarious, upbeat nature that plays well with students who no longer think of school as a positive. When Olley, 41, first talked to Martha, she didn't sound interested in returning.

"I said, 'When you're ready, I would love to help you,' " he said. They stayed in touch and he set up some meetings with her. She missed more than one, but eventually, with some help from her mother, Olley and Martha did meet at a local Arby's restaurant.

"If I have them come here," he said, sitting in an office at school district headquarters, "seldom do they show up." So he heads out to their homes or someplace nearby.

Since October, Olley said, he's had about 10 contacts with Martha. The work paid off this month when she started courses at the Unidale Area Learning Center on University Avenue. She's studying math, science, health and English in a program that features independent study. She says she's eager to stick with it and graduate.

The work he did to get Martha back in school is typical, Olley said. He figures it takes an average of six or seven hours per student to get them back in school including searching for them, persuading them to try again and then getting them enrolled.

The bulk of the students he meets have already been through the district's Truancy Intervention Program, a program that has the Ramsey County Attorney's office and district officials working in tandem.

Martha's contact with the truancy program started her freshman year. In middle school she had taken accelerated courses and was a good student, she said. But she found Central High School too big and too crowded. She wanted more one-on-one help, she said.

At home, she said, she was continuing to deal with some family problems. Her parents had divorced when she was about 10, and she and her three siblings are with her mother as the family works to make ends meet. By the time she got to Central she was staying up too late and sleeping in too long, she said. Soon she was on anti-depressants, she said.

Although she wasn't in school, she was holding down a part-time job at a restaurant in Oakdale, washing dishes and helping in the kitchen.

Her truancy and some family related problems eventually led to a stint in the county's Juvenile Detention Center. "There are a lot of consequences," she said recently. "I don't think a lot of kids realize it."

Olley said the work he's doing now is similar to the talks he had with troubled kids at Arlington. Now, though, with this as his full-time job, he has more time to talk to kids who want to come back.

He tracks down long-term dropouts by checking with landlords for forwarding addresses, calling legal guardians on file with the school district, contacting schools about requests for transcripts they've received from other schools, or simply knocking on doors.

The dropouts frequently end up in jobs that provide some cash and independence, perhaps allowing them to move out of the family home, he said.

They might land a job for $7.50 an hour and think they're doing OK, he said, until they realize the jobs don't have a future. When he meets with them, he presents a chart that shows what a person with a high school diploma or a two-year degree earns over a lifetime versus a high school dropout.

His work is also an increasingly important factor in the district's compliance with No Child Left Behind, the federal law that aims to hold schools accountable. Improving high school graduation rates is one goal of the federal initiative. For high schools, it will eventually mean improving their current graduation rates by a certain percentage each year, showing that they're making "adequate yearly progress."

The 70 former students Olley found are enrolled in districts from Chicago to East St. Louis, Ill., and many Minnesota districts. Unless St. Paul can show that those kids are re-enrolled somewhere else, their dropout status can pull down the district's graduation rate.

Each month he gets a list of students who have missed more than 15 consecutive days of school. Typically it's had 50 to 100 names, with higher numbers toward the start of the school year, when families are still getting settled. He's been overwhelmed by the friendly reception he gets from families, he said, and he often finds a brother, sister or parent in the house who has dropped out and is interested in his pitch as well.

"There is no shortage of clients," he said.


In 2001, state statistics showed that the St. Paul school district had a 63 percent graduation rate. At the time, that meant 63 percent of freshmen who started four years earlier graduated on time. But the state is now calculating that figure differently. New kids who come into the class during those four years now count toward the graduation rate, said Steve Schellenberg, the district's compliance officer.

The new formula will increase St. Paul's graduation rate by as much as 10 percentage points, he said. Data for the 2001-02 school year, using the new numbers, shows that St. Paul's high schools had graduation rates as follows:

Central: 96 percent

Como Park: 91 percent

Highland Park: 91 percent

Harding: 87 percent

Johnson: 82 percent

Arlington: 75 percent

Humboldt: 71 percent

Martha Crandall, 17, who left St. Paul's Central High School without graduating, recently started courses at the Unidale Area Learning Center on University Avenue after being contacted by diploma completion coordinator Christopher Olley. She's studying math, science, health and English.

— John Welbes
Coaxing Dropouts Back In
Pioneer Press


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