Dropout Recovery Program a success for HISD

HOUSTON HISD admits 19 percent of high school students drop out before graduating. Outside agencies say the number could be twice that high depending on how you count. In Focus reporter Ted Oberg is looking at what's working in Houston to get that number down.

Big inner city schools are where this fight is taking place and experts will tell you it takes one-on-one attention to not only get kids back in school, but to stay there. Connie Berger's team is giving it to them.

Thirty years ago, Berger was in Reagan High School in The Heights. Back then she was a student, voted in 1978 as the most likely to succeed.

"Who would have ever known that I would come back to be the high school principal?" said Berger.

Today Berger runs Reagan High. It is a big school, about 1,800 students enrolled, in the middle of this big city and like every high school in Houston, it's dealing with a large drop out problem. People who leave school sometimes just short of graduation.

"I left because I thought life would be easy," said Roberto Chaleva.

He is just one of hundreds of Reagan students who drop out. Depending on who is counting, somewhere between 14 and 45 percent of Reagan students don't graduate.

Berger and her staff meet every week to bring that number down, converting a conference room into the Dropout Recovery room. It is covered with the name of every student who was here last spring, but didn't show up this fall.

Every one of these students has a story and Berger's team is determined to make sure their stories end with a graduation. Reagan's graduation rate is half what it was when Berger showed up here three years ago.

This year's Dropout Recovery Program tracked down 72 percent of the kids who failed to show up. It is not necessarily unique to Reagan, but educational experts pointed Berger and her team out to us because of their commitment to it.

"Those are our treasures. We're looking for those students. And my staff knows we do whatever it takes for those students," said Berger.

They keep late hours here, and weekend meetings with students aren't uncommon.

HISD is in its second year with the Eagle Academy at several schools, an after-hours alternative method for lapsed students to catch up and graduate with a diploma. This is not a GED or an alternative degree, but an actual HISD diploma.

The hours are flexible, so are the days, and it's working to get former dropouts back.

As we were talking a few days ago with Berger in the Reagan library, and we promise we didn't plan this, Roberto Chaleva walked in the front door.

"I am so excited," said Berger.

Remember, he is the one who thought life would be easy when he dropped out of school three years ago when he was a senior. He was wrong.

"When my daughter was born a couple months later, I realized it was hard. I went and looked for a job and I found one, but it wasn't enough pay," said Chaleva.

He will enroll in the Eagle Academy with the hope of earning his diploma this fall. Chaleva is one more win for Berger.

"We know how important it is to that all of our students are enrolled somewhere," said Berger.

But she knows there are so many more out there who just need to be reached.

"We all know in this day and age, a comprehensive high school is not for all students. We have to meet their needs. We're lucky enough to live in the great city of Houston where we have lots of choices," said Berger.

We should note that some of the dropout recovery effort is for accountability and funding. HISD and the state of Texas need to know where these kids are going to keep funding coming in. But it's not all about that.

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