The Paragon School, formerly Hellbeck Elementary, opened in September 2014 to specifically focus on at-risk students. Photo by Nick Naglich

The Dropout Safety Net

In mid-August, just a few weeks before school started, a small group of District 60 educators were working diligently to reopen a previously abandoned school that, three years ago, was boarded up.

Their goal, ultimately, was to have every classroom ready before school started so that they could turn around students on the verge of dropping out.

The expansion of Paragon Learning Center, an alternative school for at-risk students, is part of a five-year process to prevent Pueblo kids from dropping out. In 2010, Pueblo City Schools received the Expelled and At-Risk Student Services grant to help the district open the school.

There have also been efforts district-wide to decrease the dropout rate and for the most part, they have been effective. The dropout rate for the 2013-2014 school year was 2.9 percent, down from 3.7 percent in the previous year, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Each high school in the district has a slightly different dropout rate. At Centennial High School, the rate for the 2013-2014 school year was 2.5 percent; at Central High it was 5.9 percent; at East High it was 4.4 percent; and at South High it was 4.2 percent, according to the CDE.

But despite the decreases, for some kids, traditional high schools still don’t work.

“We wrote the EARSS grant so that we could get some funding to serve our nontraditional students in Pueblo and at the time five years ago, we didn’t have an actual school or program site to support our nontraditional students,” said Cheryl Madrill-Stringham, executive director of intervention programs in D60.

As Madrill-Stringham read about the lives of four frustrated students who have dropped out or on the edge of dropping out of high school in last month’s PULP, she saw the familiar stories of kids whose lives she is trying to change.

“As I read the article and I looked at the stories of each of the individuals, I was like, ‘Yep, those are our kids who need something a little different.’ They’re not going to fit into the massive 1,200 student melee,” Madrill-Stringham said. “We want them to know we’re here.”

Madrill-Stringham has been an administrator in D60 for just over 17 years and for years before that, she was a teacher and counselor. Her most recent project has been to expand Paragon, the district’s only alternative school, with the help several other educators, all of them equally passionate about turning around the lives of potential high school dropouts.

“When the kids get here, they can really learn in that supported, non-traditional way of being able to have more flexible time, flexible hours and caring, confident teachers who are going to support them.” – Cheryl Madrill-Stringham, executive director of intervention programs in D60

Paragon officially opened last year in the building that was once Hellbeck Elementary School. The school, which had been sitting vacant for three years, was furnished with abandoned desks from the small handful of other schools in the district that are currently sitting empty.

In mid-August, final renovations on the building were still being completed.

“Even though we’re just a few weeks from getting started, you can see we’re still putting in different carpets and getting rooms cleaned up and really creating that warm, welcoming environment,” Madrill-Stringham said.

“When the kids get here, they can really learn in that supported, non-traditional way of being able to have more flexible time, flexible hours and caring, confident teachers who are going to support them,” she said.

And the goal of the Paragon Education Center is just that—to be flexible and supportive for at-risk Pueblo students on the verge of dropping out.

“A lot of our students may be caregivers within the home. They also may be the primary breadwinner within their home,” said Jennifer Farias, a District 60 counselor on special assignment at the school.

With outside responsibilities, many students struggle to find time for their education.

Farias said the goal of the school is to “provide a flexible schedule that can support both of those worlds so they can go to their jobs, continue with their high school graduation requirements, as well as the need required of them to unfortunately be at home and take care of siblings.”

Also, many of the students need an adult mentor, said Yolanda Ortega, assistant principal and site administrator at Paragon.

“I think the warmth and the relationship piece of being able to have positive relationships with an adult, a familiar, constant mentor adult that is always there,” she said. “They want to make connections. It’s not that they didn’t want to in the traditional settings. It’s just harder, especially if they don’t stand out in gifted and talented, in athletics or whatever the case may be.”

Before the district implemented programs that resulted from EARSS grant, it had been without an alternative school for a few years. The Keating Alternative Education Center, a school for expelled and at-risk students in District 60, closed in 2009.

“When they closed that, the students that had attended there, or had the need to have something a little bit different for their education, were farmed out to their traditional schools,” Madrill-Stringham said.

“So, there was a period in time when Pueblo City Schools did not have any type of nontraditional or alternative programs for kids,” she said.

Once the EARSS grant was implemented, alternative programs started to reappear. Paragon opened to a limited number of students in September 2014 and this year, its programs are expanding to a larger demographic of Pueblo students.

Madrill-Stringham said Superintendent Constance Jones wanted Paragon to become “a place in which we could develop some other programs that would assist families.”

“So, she actually moved the department of early childhood education to this building as well and next year, there will be three preschool classes that will also be new to the building,” she said.

The expansion also includes in-class instruction, online learning and blended learning, which is a combination of the two.

“In the blended learning model, you have your teacher, you have your online education kind of working together and the truly online model, you have the curriculum and a teacher monitoring and working with you,” Madrill-Stringham said.

The school will also begin offering credit for students who work in jobs in fields they’re interested in this year.

For example, last year, the school had a student who had to work to support his family and didn’t have time for a more traditional education. His teachers said he was interested in the culinary arts and worked in a restaurant.

“So the nice thing is that now, if that was this year, we would be able to kind of come up with people in the culinary arts, we would be able to get him credit for his work,” said Dana DiTomaso-Junkman, dean of students at Paragon. “And that’s kind of where we don’t really do that, so to speak, like if I was at a traditional school.”

“It’s going to be nice now to have that piece of this puzzle where he can go to work, he can come to school, he can get his credits done, and he can finish out high school,” she said, “because I do worry that he’s not going to finish if he’s, you know, going to have to fit in the cookie-cutter mold of his school.”

Outside of the cookie-cutter mold, though, his teachers said he is thriving.

“He also got a new job at another restaurant and he was sporting clothes that he had bought. And so, he’s seen value in himself and the connection to the community but at the same time the need to finish his diploma,” Ortega said.

At Paragon, the emphasis is on being a different setting for students who struggle at traditional schools.

“If they’re motivated and they want to come, and they want to get credits earned, they can earn them at a level that is based on how quickly they want to progress through the curriculum,” Madrill-Stringham said. “But it’s different and it should be because we’re not a traditional high school.”

Different as it may be, Paragon will still participate in district-wide standards. For example, the school will still participate in standardized testing and the freshman seminar class, which was implemented by the Intervention Programs office.

The recent decrease in the dropout rate throughout the district can be credited in large part to a shifting focus on freshman students.

Over the past few years, many schools in D60 have been looking closely at a 2004 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University about high school dropouts. The study ultimately found that if a student had two or more F’s during their freshman year, they were 50 percent more likely to drop out of school before reaching graduation.

The Paragon School, formerly Hellbeck Elementary, opened in September 2014 to specifically focus on at-risk students. Photo by Nick Naglich
The Paragon School, formerly Hellbeck Elementary, opened in September 2014 to specifically focus on at-risk students. Photo by Nick Naglich

“So, if a student had two or more F’s as a freshman, they’re 50 percent more likely to drop out. That’s when we started creating safety nets in each of our schools,” DiTomaso-Junkman said. “So, what are we going to do next? How are we going to fix that, so to speak? So that’s when a lot of the schools started coming up with recovery courses.”

Recovery courses allow students to make up a class after failing.

“What starts happening is the older they get, the more recovery courses they get. So, then they have zero classes that are interesting to them and they’re in a lot of recovery courses” DiTomaso-Junkman said.

To negate this, the district started offering online courses for those students and focusing on the freshman year before the problem started happening.

“I think that’s been helpful because you would have seniors sitting in a freshman class and it wouldn’t work in a traditional school,” DiTomaso said.

Even at Paragon, which is focused largely on being different, success during the ninth grade  is emphasized.

“We’ll have a seminar class here at Paragon as well. It’s really geared at looking deeply at that student as they enter the ninth grade and make sure that they transition appropriately,” Madrill-Stringham said. “So, we’re very excited about that too because it’s almost a byproduct of the work we’re doing here.”

As a whole, Paragon educators are proud of the school they’ve created for at-risk students.

“We are so proud that this building is open because if you had come by a year and a half ago, it’d have been shuttered and there would have been no life,” Madrill-Stringham said.

As the school continues to expand, the educators are looking to the community to help their students.

“We really do ask anyone in the community who knows our story or knows our mission to feel free to contact us. We want our community to know that we need their help,” Madrill-Stringham said. “There shouldn’t be a student or family who can’t walk in the doors and have support in one way or the other.”

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