In Springfield, MO as thousands of students were getting ready to head back to school, a team of educators got out a list and started dialing some that weren’t.
Carla Barker recognized a name on the list before she placed her first call.
“I knew I would probably have a student on the dropout list that I knew since I had just gotten out of the classroom two years prior,” said Barker, a coordinator of site interventions at Westport and Pipkin middle schools. “I was really disappointed to see her name, but I was excited to maybe get to talk to her mom, who I knew when she was in my class for three years.”
Barker taught English at Parkview High School before she became the coordinator of site interventions at Pipkin and Westport middle schools. As a CSI, she is part of a new SPS dropout engagement initiative that was launched this summer. The innovative, districtwide approach features a calling campaign to re-engage students who recently dropped out, informing them of options to complete their credit requirements and graduate from high school.
Dr. Sheila Wynn, director of secondary learning for Springfield Public Schools, helped lead a team of educators to place 322 phone calls over the course of three days, reaching out to students who left school before completing the requirements to graduate.
“We engaged with students who had stepped away from school in the last couple of years,” she says. “We would have been happy to re-engage one student. We had 62. But the students, they make the effort, they come back, they do the work. So we just have to find ways to make a high school diploma possible for them.”
Olivia Bailey, 18, attended Central, Parkview, Study Alternative Center and OTC Middle College before leaving school last year. She was 17, lacked transportation to school and worked a full-time job. Traditional high school just didn’t work for her, she says.
“Life got in the way, and I kept putting off and putting off getting my GED,” she says. “But I work at Steak N Shake, and two of my regular customers are substitute teachers at SPS. And they kept asking me, ‘when are you going back to school?’ So when my mom got a call from a lady at SPS that there was a way for me to go back to school, I did it.”
Bailey attended a re-enrollment event, set up by SPS educators. There, students were able to re-enroll in seated or online courses to complete their credits. Bailey signed up and reconnected with her former teacher from OTC Middle College, Amelia Horras, who now works as the coordinator of digital learning. Horras became a mentor to Bailey, providing her not just with a Chromebook and hot spot, but motivational text messages and high fives.
“Every single re-entry student has a mentor assigned to them,” said Horras. “They’re district employees who volunteer their time to just be one consistently caring adult who helps keep these kids on track to graduate. They’re both cheerleaders and coaches.”
Horras and the online office work with 20 students who are pursuing a high school diploma online with Launch. Re-entry students can now earn their required credits on their time, online.
Bailey works more than 40 hours a week as a shift manager at Steak N Shake. Balancing work and school while working overnight shifts is tough, but she knows she can do it because her mentor keeps telling her she can, she says.
“I’ve come a long way,” said Bailey. “I’m not going to walk with my class, but that’s OK. I’m still really proud of myself. Being able to say I went from a high school dropout to a high school graduate in a year? That’s really satisfying. So now I’ve got to keep going and go to college, either cosmetology school or medical technical school. We’ll see.”
Barker stands by Horras’ desk as Horras scans a list of names. Kelsea, her former student on that list, ended up re-enrolling in SPS and bringing a friend, another dropout, to the re-enrollment event with her. Now, Barker asks for a way to send an encouraging note to her former student, who is set to graduate this spring.
“These calls, these ways we’re trying to build relationships with at-risk students, it all matters,” said Barker. “We’re not just decreasing our dropout rate, we’re showing that we care. That we care for these students, their families, their stories. Just calling them and letting them know that if they want, they have options to get a high school diploma — that makes all the difference.”