Oklahoma City Public Schools aims to address urban dropout trend 

Abigail Sweeney is determined to graduate. The 15-year-old freshman at U.S. Grant High School wants to stay in school, even though she said her school has a big problem with kids dropping out, even freshmen like herself.


Sweeney's three older siblings all dropped out of high school, her brother to support a child and her two sisters because they got full-time jobs. Sweeney, however, is focused on her education. She wants to get good grades and go to college, hopefully Oklahoma State University.

To help those like Sweeney and others get the most out of their education and keep them in school, Oklahoma City Public Schools has switched from block scheduling back to a standard schedule. Sandra Park, the district's deputy superintendent, said the push to go back to standard scheduling came from school leaders, teachers and principals realizing the value in teachers seeing their students every day, instead of just a few times a week.

Although the district switched to a block scheduling format " meaning students have longer classes, but don't see the same teachers or have the same schedule daily " in 1993 because they thought it'd be better for students, the district's problems are not helped by a block schedule, Park said.

The Oklahoma City district deals with high absenteeism, so when a student misses one class on a block schedule, they're missing a huge chunk of content, Park said. That makes it harder for that student to catch up and make up missed work and causes the student to fall behind, leading to higher dropout rates.

With the new standard schedule, which took effect at the start of the new school year, teachers see their students every single day and can focus more on what each student is learning.

"In the past," Park said, "we've been focused on 'what are the teachers teaching.' Now, we have switched our focus to 'what are the students learning.' The standard schedule makes us more student focused."

For example, it's a lot more noticeable that a student is missing classes when teachers see that student every day, Park said.

Although the switch from block to standard scheduling was district wide, the system's three specialty schools had a choice on which schedule they wanted. Park said Classen School of Advanced Studies and Northeast Academy decided to stay on the block schedule.

Park hopes the switch will make a real difference to the district: higher student achievement, lower dropout rate, higher attendance and more student engagement.

Keeping kids in school was also the focus of the recent Oklahoma City Student Success Summit. The summit was possible because of a $10,000 grant awarded by America's Promise Alliance, a nationwide partnership founded by Gen. Colin Powell that works on behalf of youth. The dropout prevention campaign was started by the Alliance in response to a study they completed that found graduation rates in the nation's 35 largest cities were lower than in those city's surrounding suburban areas.

The summit brought together 200 ninth graders from 13 area schools " 12 from the Oklahoma City Public Schools system " to listen to their ideas on why students drop out and how to keep them in school. Mayor Mick Cornett and Kirk Humphreys, former mayor and current Oklahoma City Public Schools board chairman, made opening statements. But the real energy in the room came from the students themselves who, though starting out quietly, really spoke their mind about what they think will make area schools a better place to learn.

Sitting around tables in the Cox Convention Center, the students were posed questions and encouraged to voice their opinion. Each table had a trained adult facilitator, many provided by the local nonprofit Possibilities. The organization focuses on grassroots community development.

"We really believe that community development comes from people caring about their community and connecting with one another," said Shannon Dennis, Possibilities executive director. Keeping kids in schools is one of those ways people can help develop their community.

One of the first things the students did was to write on small pieces of paper answering the question: Why do students drop out?

The kids wrote fast, quickly filling up the slips of paper with insightful opinions. Some of them were obvious to the adults: gangs, peer pressure, pregnancy, drugs. But others were something that adults, far removed from their own high school experience, wouldn't think of: the need to get a job to support their family, the feeling that a diploma won't really help their future or situation, a lack of support from both teachers and family.

Bianca Dorsey, 14, a student at Douglass High School, wrote that some kids drop out because they think they're too good for school. Dionte Barnes, 15, a student at Star Spencer High School, wrote that bullying and a bad home environment may push others to drop out.

Ravion Cyrus, 15, a student at Northeast Academy, had a different view. She said administration and teacher support " or the lack of it " has a big part to play in students sticking with school. She posed her own question: Shouldn't the administration worry less about whether or not a student is wearing a belt and focus more on actually teaching?

After the summit, a plan will be drawn up using the input from those students and the United Way will oversee the implementation of the plan. " Jenny Coon Peterson

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