Marshall begins slow, sure rise

OUR view l A Southeast Portland school has long battled a high dropout rate, freshman angst and language barriers Ñ but now there's a plan to turn it all around

It's 7:45 a.m., and Melinda Bessner, Marshall High School's dean of attendance, is standing at the door of a student's house talking with the parent about why the child is not attending school.

Efforts such as these are just one of the ways that Marshall is changing.

Improved student achievement and attendance are priorities at Marshall High School. During the last school year, as the result of a variety of strategies and changing conditions, Marshall students made significant gains on state benchmark assessments while achieving a 3.44 percent overall decrease in dropouts, a five-year low for our community.

Marshall, located at 3905 S.E. 91st Ave., has 1,200 students living in outer Southeast Portland. Our school community is one of the most ethnically, economically and socially diverse in the state. More than 40 percent of families speak a language other than English in their homes. Many families are recent arrivals to our country.

Regardless of these challenges, our school goals call for daily on-time attendance for all students and 100 percent high school completion. With these goals in mind, some changes were in order.

A key initiative was closer communication with families. Letters were regularly sent to families detailing lapses in attendance and identifying students at risk of being dropped from enrollment. Home visits by Bessner and other support staff ensured that families understood the implications of poor attendance. We worked so that language barriers were overcome.

A second initiative was close tracking of students no longer attending our school. Under Oregon rules, students are not considered dropouts if they successfully transition into another high school, alternative school or accredited program.

While we hope that students living in our attendance area will choose to attend Marshall, it is more important to us that they continue in school, even if enrolled elsewhere. When available, students were referred to and placed in alternative programs, including Mount Scott Center for Learning and our own night school program.

Older students were assisted in enrolling in community college high school completion and GED programs. Still others who moved away and were listed as dropouts eventually were identified by Bessner as having enrolled at schools in other districts or states.

A third initiative was making Marshall a more comfortable and safe haven for students and their families. In addition to the efforts of our regular counseling staff, a county-funded counselor provided guidance and mentoring for students, especially those in danger of dropping out.

Freshmen are, as a group, among those most likely to leave school. Our efforts to make the high school experience more personal and comfortable for them led to the creation this year of our Ninth Grade Academy. Marshall freshmen are enrolled in one of four academy teams, whose three teachers and support staff provide both instruction and mentoring designed to build on the skills developed in our middle schools and to make the high school transition as successful as possible.

Currently, ASPIRE, a mentoring program in partnership with city Commissioner Jim Francesconi's office, trains volunteers to work individually with students and their families to build the academic profiles and complete the applications necessary to move successfully on to colleges and universities.

Partnerships with our families, and programs like ASPIRE, will help us ensure that all of our students successfully complete school and move on to productive lives.

Greg Wolleck has been principal of Marshall High School for four years.