COUNCIL BLUFFS — Through the eyes of a graduation coach, no two students are alike – each has their own unique story.

Getting to know each of those stories is one way the Council Bluffs Community School District is working to lower its dropout rates with students who are struggling to stay in school.

After the first graduation coach was hired in 1999, the district continued adding more and more coaches in its schools, partnering with the Fourth District Juvenile Court based Council Bluffs. Today, a total of 10 graduation coaches work in eight different schools in the district.

The decision to give graduation coaches a bigger role in the school district came as part of the district’s strategic plan in the 2008-09 school year, School Attendance Supervisor Kathy Hanafan said.

“Our dropout rate was horrendous,” Hanafan said. “It just wasn’t very good, and our graduation rate wasn’t very good.”

During the 2009-10 school year, the district reported a dropout rate of 6.7 percent, or 178 students – the highest the rate has been in the last five years.

That same year, Hanafan was hired into the district, only a few years after Superintendent Martha Bruckner was hired in 2007, to help get the district back on track. Last year, the district reported a dropout rate of 2.7 percent, or 71 students.

“We’ve really evolved within the last four years,” Hanafan said.

A graduation coach’s primary goal is to promote and improve school attendance to ultimately reduce the dropout rate and increase the graduation rate in schools – but it’s really so much more than that, Hanafan said.

“Building the relationships with students is extremely important in engaging students in a school setting to help develop skills toward graduation and beyond,” Thomas Jefferson High School graduation coach Silina Branson said.

Coaches spend a great deal of time getting to know each student to better understand their stories and, by doing so, are able to work on a case by case basis with each student to gain a better understanding on why a student isn’t showing up to school.

From these stories, coaches have found a number of different indicators or trends that may contribute to a student’s absenteeism behavior.

“Some of them have juvenile court involvement,” Hanafan said. “Sometimes, it’s a matter of transportation, work, mental health or substance abuse.”

Once a student starts missing multiple, full school days, a graduation coach steps in to help the student and find out the best way to reengage that student in school.

“They’re usually not coming to school because there’s something else in their day-to-day life that keeps them from coming,” Hanafan said. “It’s not because they don’t want to come to school.”

Currently, eight schools in the Council Bluffs school district staff graduation coaches: Bloomer, Franklin and Roosevelt elementary schools; Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln high schools; Wilson and Kirn middle schools; and Kanesville Alternative School.

Based on each school’s individual needs, a school is able to lay out a program framework specific to the coaches and students, meaning one school’s program might not look like another school’s program.

For example, Thomas Jefferson is doing things a little differently this year, compared to years past. Instead of working with all students, each coach is focusing on only 40 students this year, meaning 80 students total are receiving help from both graduation coaches staffed at Thomas Jefferson.

“At the high school level, it’s a lot of relationship building with students and building a relationship with the family,” Branson said. “It’s figuring out that barrier between school and family that’s keeping them from coming to school.”

The program is flexible though, and that number of students can always change, Branson said. Sometimes students transition out of the school or a trimester changes, and, when students get back on track, they generally exit the program and a coach only checks in with the student from time to time.

While high school and middle school coaches work more on the intervention side of things, Lynsi Perkins works on the prevention end, floating between three district elementary schools every week. This is the first year the elementary schools have staffed a graduation coach.

“I’m really helping to engage those families at an earlier stage so they, hopefully, aren’t struggling later in the secondary schools,” Perkins said. “Early interventions will not only be better for the families, but they’ll be better for the district, too.”

Perkins works exclusively with students in pre-kindergarten through first grade.

At the elementary level, a graduation coach spends a lot of time getting to know the family, as opposed to high school where coaches work more with the students, she said.

Some days she spends making phone calls to families. Other days she makes house calls, showing up to a student’s residence to find out why the student isn’t in school.

“I make calls to families to find out obstacles and barriers that are keeping the student from school,” Perkins said. “Some of these families are scared that we want to punish them, but that’s not what we want. We want to bridge that gap between school and home – we’re here to support them.”

Perkins said she works mostly with students who are between the ages of 3 and 7 years old. At that age, students depend on somebody else like an adult to get wake, dress and feed them before school – and the district doesn’t believe it’s the student’s responsibility to make sure those things are happening, Perkins said.

“It’s really about educating the parents on the importance of being at school,” Perkins added. “Preschool isn’t a day care.”

Graduation coaches are part of a bigger picture though, Hanafan said. The coaches are only one, complex moving part of a bigger idea on how to keep kids in school in the Council Bluffs school district.

“Grad coaches play a huge part in it all,” Hanafan said. “But, success with our dropout data is because kids aren’t invisible to us. We know who they are, and we do take it personally.”

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