The Pendleton School District’s graduation rates are already higher than average, but if it wants to raise them further, Hawthorne Alternative High School will have to be one area it addresses.
While Pendleton High School graduated 89.7 percent of its seniors in 2017-18, Hawthorne was almost 60 points lower. Additionally, more than 1 in 4 Hawthorne students dropped out of school compared with just 2 percent at PHS.
To bring the alternative school’s numbers up, the district hired Kelly Simpson as its dropout prevention coordinator and installed him at Hawthorne.
At a Tuesday wmeeting, Simpson explained how he was trying to change the school culture.
“Those of you who have spent time working on school culture know it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It is hard.”
Simpson has tried to better ingratiate Hawthorne into students’ lives by having the school host family nights that went over subjects like addiction, nutrition and absenteeism. The school also organizes student groups for counseling and smoking prevention.
As an alternative school, Hawthorne is meant to serve students who struggle in a traditional class setting, many of whom have dealt with trauma in their personal lives.
According to enrollment statistics, 54 students attend Hawthorne on a full- or part-time basis. Nearly half of those students also take classes at Pendleton High School and another four are enrolled in Hawthorne’s GED program.
Simpson said some students split their time between Hawthorne, PHS, and the district’s online school program.
In recent years, local school systems such as Hermiston School District and the Milton-Freewater Unified School District have folded their alternative high schools, consolidating students into their flagship high school’s student body.
Despite being the last holdout, school officials have said that their alternative program is important in offering students options outside of the typical high school experience.
And some students strongly identify with Hawthorne as an independent school. When the school board considered merging Hawthorne with PHS in 2017, students and staff went to a meeting to oppose the move.
Although the board decided not to pursue it, Simpson said he still sees Hawthorne as an extension of Pendleton High School.
“Kids need to feel some sort of attachment,” he said after the meeting. “If we need to hang up a sign that says ‘Hawthorne,’ we can do that.”
Simpson said Hawthorne isn’t changing its curriculum, which relies on two internet programs to provide students with learning material.
Simpson said the online curriculum helps students do their schoolwork outside of school.
It can also lead to rapid turnarounds: Simpson said a student recently completed a year’s worth of material in a semester after committing himself to school.
Rather than academic tinkering, Simpson said his day-to-day duties mostly involve meeting with students to figure out how help them overcome obstacles to succeeding at school.
Pendleton High School Assistant Principal Curt Thompson said it can be as simple as helping a student obtain an ID for their GED. While it might seem like a simple task, Thompson said some students have never dealt with Department of Motor Vehicles or don’t have the requisite birth certificate and don’t know how to get one.
While serving as career technical education coordinator, Thompson was the part-time principal of Hawthorne before a reorganization in 2017 sent him to work for the high school.
Thompson said Hawthorne’s success will be measured in its ability not only to raise graduation rates and lower dropout rates, but improve on other factors like attendance and behavioral issues.
Hawthorne is already starting to see early signs of improvement.
After a slow start to the year, Hawthorne month-by-month attendance has outpaced last year’s data in every month since November.