Wrap-around social services help Umatilla students keep focus on graduating
Umatilla High senior Juan Atilano connects finishing high school with getting a good job that will allow him to spend time with his family. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Being a dropout just runs in the family, said Umatilla High School senior Joel Escamilla. His cousins didn’t finish school, and he was on that path last year.
“I was going downhill,” he said. “There was a point where I just wanted to stop coming to school, but the teachers always knew I had potential and said that I needed to stay in school and graduate.
“I always doubted myself.”
The Umatilla School District had an 81.7 percent graduation rate for 2016-17, in part because academic interventions and wrap-around services help keep students in school. The Oregon average was 76.7 percent. Umatilla administrators have worked hard to show students opportunities, but for many of Umatilla’s mostly low-income students, passing classes is often way down the priority list.
In the summer, Escamilla works from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., sometimes seven days a week when the farmers need the fruit, to help support his family. He was three credits behind at the end of his junior year, but getting to school for summer classes after a hot day in the fields wasn’t really an option.
Teachers helped him set up online credit recovery courses he could do at home on his sister’s laptop. Teachers were available at school on his days off. And Umatilla staff kept asking him what he was going to do with his life.
Escamilla says he asked Dean of Students April Dirksen for the papers for alternative schooling, which they both knew was really him wanting to drop out.
“Mrs. Dirksen told me, ‘I’m not going to give them to you. You don’t have an option. You’re going to finish school and graduate,’” Escamilla said.
Now he is on track to graduate.
“I didn’t believe in myself, and she did believe in me,” he said. “I’m thankful for that.”
Umatilla augments academic interventions with a variety of nonacademic supports, from staff picking up students for school to setting up a contract with a local pharmacy to provide lice treatment.
Dirksen holds a weekly “Talk about kids” meeting to identify students who need academic or personal help and what can be done. Administrators, counselors and care workers compare notes so students don’t slip through the cracks.
Group members are responsible for establishing relationships so that each student has somebody checking on him or her weekly.
Umatilla High freshman Zoey Baldwin asks Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe for help during one of Sipe’s regular classroom tours to evaluate teachers. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The district has also begun using BrightBytes, an early warning system that integrates 10 years of Umatilla student data to identify local factors that most correlate with not graduating. The program offers intervention ideas so that Umatilla can target its resources to the most effective supports.
The InterMountain Education Service District provides a nurse twice a week in the district. The nurse helps students with issues such as sleep or eating habits and can connect students and their families with doctors, dentists, optometrists and therapists.
Umatilla County CARE provides counselors in the school who can help students find social services and provide basic needs, such as food, transportation to appointments and housing. Families can learn about all the services they need in one meeting.
The Oregon Department of Human Services sends a social worker to the school four days a week. It is usually a family issue when a student is not on track to graduate, said Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe. DHS can put more pressure on parents to get students to school, as well as pair families with needed services, she said.
Umatilla has partnered with Lifeways to provide two mental health counselors weekly at the high school. Many Umatilla students have experienced traumas such as extreme poverty, homelessness and family substance abuse. One counselor works with small groups on skills such as handling grief, abuse or family problems. The other does one-on-one counseling for private issues such as depression or mental health assessments.
“We provide these services so kids can just concentrate on learning,” Dirksen said.
More than half the district’s students are involved in after-school programs, according to Sipe. The district provides food, homework help and bus rides home well into the evening.
“Everything is about staffing for students,” Sipe said. “We invest in kids and focus on filling the gaps.”
The high school’s graduation specialist, Doug Gall, monitors students’ progress and keeps them on track.
“When they get behind, I play Papa,” he said.
Umatilla also has a Community Accountability Board. The board, made up of community volunteers, offers an intermediary step between school rules and the juvenile justice system. A family facing a truancy fine or a student facing a criminal citation can opt to go before the board.
If a student is missing school because he or she is caring for a sibling while the mother is in the hospital, the board can help set the family up with child-care options. The board can also identify when a parent doesn’t have control of the situation, and provide help in reaching the student.
The board creates a contract with the family, with attendance, behavior or academic requirements. It’s a one-shot deal, and if the family or student doesn’t live up to the bargain, they must pay the fines or go to court.
“Through some guidance and direction from our village we can get these kids on track,” Dirksen said.
Senior Juan Atilano said that starting as a freshman, he was getting in trouble nearly every day. Finally, the police showed up after a fight in school his junior year. Rather than ending up in the juvenile justice system, he went before the Community Accountability Board.
“I was thankful for them giving me a second chance to gather up some thoughts to change,” he said.
The board put him on probation with a curfew for six months. He had to keep his grades up and be on time to school. Atilano compared turning in his grades to the board with turning in a timecard and said it helped prepare him for a job.
High School Principal Bob Lorence has since asked Atilano to speak to other students about staying out of trouble, which he says made him feel good about himself. He is actively involved in his school now, forming a school car club with the superintendent’s support.
And he wants to graduate, because school staff and the board have helped him connect the dots between going to class and what he wants in life.
“They helped me,” he said. “They inspired me to be more and different.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Tuesday: Umatilla fosters culture of success to inspire students and promote graduation
Thursday: Umatilla uses clubs, sports and activities to keep students connected