Friday , February 17, 2017 - 5:30 AM4 comments
OGDEN — It was about 4 p.m. on a school night and the gym at George Washington High School smelled like pizza.
It smells like that pretty often now that Principal Benji Carrier has created a program rewarding students who stay after school to finish their homework with dinner.
George Washington is an alternative high school in the Ogden School District. Carrier said he’s well aware of its reputation for being a “bad kid” school, something he vehemently denies and is working hard to change.
“We’re not satisfied with where we are,” he said. “The numbers, putting our graduation rate below 30 percent is not something we’re OK with. That number is faces to us. Those are individual kids and families we know and we’ve had a hand in raising. They’re our kids.”
The school’s graduation rate has stayed below 40 percent since 2011, and 2015 was the first year enough students took the ACT for it to show up on the state's annual report cards. George Washington’s SAGE scores are also low compared to the district and state according to Utah State Board of Education data.
Carrier, who has been leading the school since 2015, said his students attend the alternative high school for a variety of reasons, whether it’s anxiety and financial hardship or simply deciding the close-knit, nontraditional approach to their high school diploma is a better fit.
“It’s different across the board but I would say for the most part we’ve got kids who do struggle with a system they have not been successful in and, oftentimes, that has gone back generations,” he said. “They’ve been in a system that has not worked.”
One such student is Luis Gutierrez, an 18-year-old senior who came to George Washington from Highland Junior High School with “straight F’s” and only five credits.
As of December, Gutierrez had more than the 24 credits required to graduate and said he was really glad he came to George Washington when he did.
“It’s not a bad school,” he said. “It’s very nice. Everyone is friendly. There’s no bullying at all and it’s easy to make friends because there are no cliques.”
David Smith has taught at George Washington for 28 years. He currently works with Archway students, a short-term placement program for minors in custody of the state, teaching financial literacy and math.
Smith said he has seen many changes at the school.
“Years ago, you were sentenced to Washington,” he said. “Now, lots of parents and students see it as an opportunity to increase their chance of graduation.”
That started with Sarah Roberts, who served as the school’s principal for about four years before Carrier was appointed to the position. She took over right when the school was moved to its existing address on 28th Street. It previously been on the Ogden School District campus as a joint venture with the Weber School District.
Roberts said she shouldn’t have been surprised when she started working there, but she was.
“I was absolutely blown away by how welcoming the students were,” she said. “In a traditional school, you’re invisible walking down the hall, but there was not a single child who didn’t say hello or ask how I was, walking down the hall.”
Smith said he has continued teaching at George Washington for nearly three decades because it is the “greatest place to work.”
“I don’t think the general public really knows much about the school,” he said. “I think if you asked 100 people on the street about George Washington, 50 of them would say ‘What’s that?’”
The teaching method in Roberts’ time at George Washington revolved around instructional packets students received credit for based on pages completed, not school attendance. She said teachers didn’t feel empowered to hold their students accountable and kids would even get up and walk out of class.
Roberts said the staff and parents were receptive to a change in mindset and holding students to a higher standard.
“I had parents calling genuinely confused as to why I was expecting their child to attend school every day because that hadn’t been the case before,” she said.
Roberts also changed the language describing how students came to George Washington from the district’s traditional high schools, requiring an explanation as to why the student was being recommended.
“One of the things that was so obvious in my first week is we have incredibly capable kids who just didn’t fit the traditional school mold,” she said. “Most of them reminded me of my peers in college … they’re capable, they’re just bored and didn’t know how to advocate.”
This is the first year Executive Director of Secondary Schools Sondra Jolovich-Motes has worked with George Washington but knows in years prior, attending the school was treated like a punishment.
“What Benji has done is lay the foundation with his school leadership team and his faculty to look at student data and analyze their instruction and adjust it to better meet their needs,” she said.
Carrier created standards students must abide by to continue attending the school and decided not to deny students based on low attendance at their previous institutions.
Rosie Delgado, an 18-year-old senior, came to George Washington with a low attendance rate after giving birth to her daughter. She said she wouldn’t be on track to graduate if she hadn’t transferred.
“I probably wouldn’t be in school right now,” she said.
Roberts said her time at George Washington is the most rewarding work she has ever done.
“Our kids at George Washington always look you in the eye and shake your hand because they know what they’ve accomplished,” she said. “There’s a greater sense of purpose than with the average high school student who might be taking their education a little for granted.”
The George Washington student to teacher ratio is 1:15 and enrollment has fluctuated over the years from 218 students in 2000 to 321 in 2007 and back down to 216 in 2016.
Students have seven periods of classes daily and advisory to set goals. There are no extra curricular activities but there is a robotics class and students — both by choice and by requirement — have access to a two-hour PM class after school for credit recovery.
One of the students in the PM class in early February was 17-year-old Dylan Orris, a senior. He was looking up what random-access memory, or RAM, meant and working toward graduation at the end of the school year.
Orris said he was going to go to the Job Corps if he didn’t graduate this year but Carrier cut him off.
“What do you mean Job Corps?” he said, laughing. “You’re going to graduate. You’re going to do this.”
The Utah Alternative School Accountability reports give schools scores based on improvement and nontraditional student outcomes, such as completing a GED or remaining in high school for an extra year.
With a total possible score of 1,500, George Washington's score has decreased from 1,118 in 2014 to 1,060 in 2016.
The most recent report shows the school received perfect scores in attendance and school climate but only 110 out of 300 possible points in "attainment," which looks at student outcomes.
Carrier said he’s not happy with that score because he knows it means there were a lot of “zeros,” which is number of points they receive for each student that drops out.
“The data should give you insight to take action, to take the appropriate action, and I feel like this does that better than like, a SAGE score,” he said.
Carrier also has a nontraditional way of looking at George Washington’s graduation rate. He and his staff set this year’s goal at 42 percent, which was landed on by looking at seniors who had enough credits already to possibly graduate.
Each one of those students had a graduation plan put into place but looking at it now, halfway through the school year, Carrier said a more realistic graduation rate is 38 percent.
To Carrier, success is keeping kids in school who would otherwise drop out. Success is also getting some — even if it’s not all of them — to graduation day, a GED or employment.
Carrier pointed to one student whose family recently moved about an hour away from Ogden. The student still commutes to school and has attendance issues but Carrier wants him to continue attending George Washington
Another student’s family recently moved to Layton but remains enrolled at George Washington despite living within Davis School District boundaries. Carrier wants to keep these students because another academic disruption could knock them off the path to earning a a diploma.
“We are never going to stop the pursuit of helping every single kid who comes here from reaching their ultimate goals,” Carrier said.
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