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2017 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference

Programs help Spokane schools succeed in improving the graduation rate

Bridget Cannon and James Wilburn discuss efforts with at-risk students.

Bridget Cannon, director of youth services at Volunteers of America (VOA) for the Inland Northwest since 2008, and James Wilburn, Student/Family Re-Engagement and Assessment Project manager for Spokane School District, work with at-risk youth to help them graduate so they have better jobs. They spoke in a workshop on education at the Jan. 28 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference.

Bridget said statewide there were 35,000 homeless youth last year, up from 29,000 in 2009, because the recession lingers and providers can better identify the homeless. Of the total, 6,000 are unaccompanied youth. In 2014-15, there were 1,364 homeless youth in K-12 in Spokane, 413 in Central Valley and 399 in Mead.

“The 2015 state graduation rate for homeless youth was 57 percent, but for Spokane it was at 75 percent because of interventions. The overall graduation rate is 87 percent,” said Bridget. “We are doing better because of systems such as the Community Truancy Board and Restorative Justice responding to absences early.

The 1987 federal McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act identifies services to keep homeless children in their school of origin, where they know teachers and counselors, and have friends and a support system.  Unaccompanied youth can enroll in neighborhood schools, she said.

The HEART program (Homeless Education Advocates Resource Team) in all districts under McKinney-Vento enhances support services to stabilize homeless families. In Spokane, there are three staff.

“When kindergarteners are in unstable housing, it has impact on their learning,” said Bridget.

James said the truancy board helps prevent detention from many absences, which mean students can’t keep up in a class. 

The board sits with parents and students to find why the student is missing—illness or a death—and provides services or food through HEART and SNAP, he said.

“When I started in 2009, there was a 51 percent on-time graduation rate for African Americans,” said James, whose internship for a masters’ degree was researching the achievement gap. 

He started the achievement gap intervention model in schools.  Based on his success, he believes there is also need for intervention specialists to meet with Hispanic and Native American high school students to address cultural issues and poverty.

Upper-middle-class families may sit down for dinner at 5 p.m., but that may not happen in poor families, where the mother works two jobs and struggles to provide food and housing.  The children may lack access to computers at home, putting them behind because technology is needed for studies, James said. Older students may not be able to access computers after school because they have to watch younger siblings, so their mother can work.

“People growing up in poverty don’t know they are stressed.  From my experiences growing up in a low-to-moderate-income family, I can relate to their experience,” James said.

“We need more intervention specialists who can relate with students,” he said.  “What seems to be a small problem to us is huge to a student.  I’m available to give students a chance to talk.  A teacher with 32 students can’t listen to a disruptive student.

“Those students can come to me with their work.  I take time to listen to what they are feeling as they go to six 45-minute classes, boom, boom, boom and struggle through each,” he said. “Perhaps one can’t see the blackboard or hear the teacher.  If a student’s stomach is growling, it’s hard to pay attention. I build relationships with students so they feel comfortable sharing.”

Bridget talks with children who drop out and finds that what makes a difference is their having a relationship with at least one adult—an algebra teacher, a coach or a pastor.

While mentoring programs help, James said students need consistent relationships. He prefers students having “sponsors” who want to see a return in their investment in a student. He started a Black Student Union so adults can meet with students to share why education is important.

James also invites neighborhood churches to adopt schools and invest in students.

“Misinformation leads to the wrong formation,” he said. “We are building lives.  I want the whole school system to achieve. If we raise the graduation rate for African-American students, we raise the overall graduation rate.”

For information, call 624-2378 for Bridget or 354-4644 for James.

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