OGDEN — Two Rivers High School, the alternative offering in Weber School District, has made dramatic progress in its graduation rates over the past two years.

But these gains were almost thwarted by pandemic-related school closures.

Like alternative high schools in other districts, Two Rivers serves students who have fallen behind in credits at their home high schools. Through a specialized program within the school, it also serves students who have been moved out of their schools because of behavior problems.

Between 2018 and 2019, the school’s graduation rate leapt 33 percentage points — from 49% of students graduating in 2018, to 82% in 2019. Officials say this was due to intensive efforts at the school, including a three-tier system designed to meet the needs of specific groups of students, as previously reported in the Standard-Examiner.

At the end of this latest school year, there were about 280 students at Two Rivers, according to the school’s principal, Nicole Meibos. Because the school is designed to help students recoup credits to graduate, a high proportion of these students are seniors — 150 of them, or more than half the student body, Meibos said.

After K-12 schools first closed in mid-March, teachers at Two Rivers were struggling to make contact with their students. Despite reaching out, it was radio silence on the other end, Meibos said — and yet the school still needed to help their seniors graduate.

In those first weeks after schools closed, the future looked bleak, she said.

“I thought, ‘Man, we’re going to lose a lot of kids during this,’” Meibos said. “ ... I thought this was going to be devastating, but I think just the way our teachers and our counselors approached it, we were able to save a lot of kids and help a lot of kids.”

The school ran into the same barriers that other schools encountered, like students’ lack of access to computers and internet service, according to Meibos. But Two Rivers students also faced challenges that were particular to their group, like a higher proportion of students taking on additional paid work when family members lost jobs.

Families’ use of the school’s food pantry increased significantly, Meibos said.

As students’ lack of responsiveness wore on, school leadership knew they had to take additional steps to pull the students back to learning. With the support of school staff, Meibos launched a senior mentor program, which divvied the seniors into groups of 10, giving each group one teacher to be their point person.

Each teacher shepherded his or her 10 seniors through the final months of school, serving as a single point of contact that students could approach for help with the struggles they were encountering, Meibos said. Students were assigned to teachers that they already had strong relationships with.

“A lot of it came down to the incredible relationship and rapport that the teachers and the counselors had with these kids,” Meibos said. “That is where the turning point really happened.”

In addition to the circumstantial stresses students were facing, Two Rivers students showed an aversion to online learning, the format schools were leaning on during the extended closures, Meibos said. In response, Two Rivers staff turned to a tool that predates online learning by decades: paper packets.

Megan Illum, a senior who participated in the school’s graduation walk Thursday evening, said that her teachers — and the paper packets they delivered to her — made all the difference.

“It was a lot harder because I wasn’t as connected to my teachers as I was face-to-face,” Illum said. “But then I got in contact with them, and they were the ones that were bringing me all my homework ... I would have much rather done packets than online stuff. ... Just doing it on paper was a lot easier for me.”

Students could make appointments to get extra help, Meibos said — with only a few students coming in at a time. Illum said she almost came in to the school to get help with math, but she didn’t end up needing it.

Even after getting these new resources in place, though, teachers had a hard time re-engaging some students.

Russ Jessop, a history teacher at the school, found success reaching his students through their friends, he said. He’d ask the friends to reach out to his students and encourage them to come in and have a socially distanced meeting. Once he made contact with students, it wasn’t hard to keep them engaged, he said.

“Some of these kids that were off the radar, but close to graduation, started coming in and after ... seeing what we have for them, they would make comments like ‘Jessop, this is exactly what I needed,’” he said.

A group of 10 young mothers at the school faced additional hurdles, as they relied on the school’s child care program, which launched at the beginning of this school year.

Before school closures, these young mothers had access to child care at the school during the entire school day, five days a week — up to 35 hours. After school closures, the program continued to run by offering limited appointments. The amount of available child care time plummeted to 4 hours per week.

Despite this dramatic change, five of the eight moms who were seniors will graduate, Meibos said. The three that didn’t ran into more challenges working at home, she said, but one will likely be able to finish this summer.

Te’Adora Roach, a senior who relied on the child care program before the pandemic, was able to turn to her mother for help with her now 3-year-old son, Jay’Cinthyan. The child care did not make as much of a difference for her during the school closure as it did for some of her fellow moms, but it did make a difference for Jay’Cinthyan, she said.

Roach once brought him with her when she dropped by the school to pick up her packets, she said, and he beelined it to the child care room, since he’s familiar with the building. The door was closed and locked at the time.

Jay’Cinthyan was “wondering, ‘Why are we at school, but I can’t see my friends?’” Roach recalled. “And then he just started to cry.”

Roach set up a few child care appointments for him so he could see some of his friends (a small number at a time) and play with all the toys there — which were all thoroughly sanitized, she said.

“It really broke his heart that he ... just stopped going to this place he really loved,” she said, adding that the child care appointments eased that difficulty.

Roach said her packets and online work “helped tremendously.” She’s on track to graduate in June with a Two Rivers diploma.

“I had two really, really great go-to teachers,” Roach said. “ ... They were right by my side, and they still are right now — they’re, like, pushing me and still encouraging me to get my work finished.”

While she’s happy that her own graduation is fast approaching, she had words of praise for her graduating class as a whole.

“I’m very proud of them,” Roach said of her fellow graduates. She especially admires the other young mothers at the school who are graduating.

“They all were very determined and pushing themselves to get this done, no matter ... how many credits they had,” Roach said.

Traditional graduation ceremonies were canceled due to the pandemic, but Two Rivers held graduation walks on Wednesday and Thursday evening, with a red carpet rolled out for graduates in the parking lot behind the school.

Students made appointments to receive their diplomas from Meibos, decked out in their caps and gowns, while proud parents and family snapped photos.

Although work with students will continue into the summer, Meibos expects that Two Rivers’ 2020 graduation rate won’t be far from its recent high numbers, she said. Of the school’s 150 seniors, 130 participated in the graduation walks — about 87%.

Jessop, the history teacher, said that he’s always proud of his students who graduate, but this year brings even more satisfaction.

“As an educator, I get really attached — you just do ... you care about their futures, you want them to reach graduation and keep moving forward and making good decisions ...” Jessop said.

“I feel that way every year,” he continued, “but I can’t even express to you how proud I am of these kids for just digging deep and ... getting their work done in the face of a global pandemic.

“The class of 2020 – they just got it done. And that’s going to be a special group. It’s one for the history books. They’re not going to forget it, and I certainly won’t.”

Contact reporter Megan Olsen at molsen@standard.net or 801-625-4227. Follow her on Twitter at @MeganAOlsen.

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