More diplomas the goal for Stanislaus County

naustin@modbee.comSeptember 28, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— Graduation Destination launched with its first success, a young adult getting his diploma, and inspiration from a superintendent who lowered his district’s dropout rate to 1 percent.

The Stanislaus County Office of Education initiative will work with United Way and other community groups to provide mentoring programs, summer camps and parental involvement programs.

The county also opened a charter school this summer to give recent dropouts a second chance, Come Back Kids. Its first graduate, Giovanni Rubio, got his diploma at the event Thursday.

The school, on the Mildred Perkins Elementary School campus in north Modesto, expected to open with 25 young adults. Response was overwhelming, however, and the school now has 90 enrolled, said Division Director Scott Kuykendall.

But that still meets only a fraction of the need. Roughly 1,200 a year – one in seven – Stanislaus County students drop out of high school. Few employers hire workers without diplomas, and military service is not an option.

Many will end up on social programs or, in some cases, in jail. Studies show that about 75 percent of state prisoners lack a high school diploma, said county Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon.

Fewer dropouts stands as a universal goal, one more easily said than done. One district that has had success is Sanger Unified, which increased graduation rates to 95percent or higher for the past three years despite high poverty rates and large numbers of English learners.

Recently retired Sanger Superintendent Marc Johnson, the 2011 National Superintendent of the Year, spoke at the initiative kickoff Thursday and later to school leaders at the Association of Stanislaus County School Boards annual meeting.

“Increasing the graduation rate is not the work of high schools. It is a K-12 (kindergarten through senior year) effort,” Johnson told school board members. The district’s lowest performing elementary campus had a school score in the 300s when he arrived, among the lowest in the state. Today it tops 850, comfortably over the statewide goal of 800.

The change, he said, took a turnaround in culture. “Success calls for schools designed around kids, not adults,” he said.

Johnson moved quickly, forgoing committee work and tackling obstacles directly. Professional collaboration helped implement intensive teaching methods. Principals fit extra help for struggling students into the school day.

In high school, all seniors take math, freeing a freshman period for extra math or English help. Remediation classes use recent grades rather than yearlong averages. Sanger aims for college-level classes because, while not every student has higher education aspirations, the level of reading required to be an auto mechanic is the same level taught in freshman English in college, Johnson said.

“We set kids up for success,” he said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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