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At-risk students make unexpected gains in transition school

McNary High School teacher and coach Kevin Wise talks with a class of transition school students about planning for the future beyond high school graduation. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)
McNary High School teacher and coach Kevin Wise talks with a class of transition school students about planning for the future beyond high school graduation. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

Jesus Monrroy had a leg up on his classmates when he started at McNary High School as a freshman three years ago.

“I had the discipline to get assignments in on time. The bell schedules were also a big part of it because you want to get to class on time,” Monrroy said. “I saw friends who didn’t do the transition school getting to class late and they weren’t as organized.”

Monrroy credited taking part in the Celtic transition school program that takes place five weeks each summer with instilling a focus classmates lacked. He was back last week as a transition school volunteer earning community service credit.

Students participating in transition school take writing and math courses along with some high school planning courses and can earn up to a half-credit in electives and another half-credit in English. Along the way, they meet fellow students and teachers who might become the anchors they need to stay connected and engaged in the school.

Sean Murray, a special education case manager and English teacher at McNary, leads the program each summer and recruits students from Claggett Creek and Whiteaker Middle School who teachers and administrators feel might be at-risk once they get to high school. Several factors, including testing scores, attendance, behavior and housing status, are used to determine potential high school success.

“Each year, I get a list of students who are identified at the middle schools and then I go and talk with them individually,” Murray said.

Last year was Murray’s first leading the program and meeting with students was less productive than he’d hoped. This year, he got a much better reception.

“They students who have taken part in it are talking about it, and we see the T-shirts every day in the halls,” Murray said.

As the school year unfurls, Murray tracks the students who enrolled in transition school and compares them to the at-risk students who didn’t. Two other district schools, which have had the program longer, have seen large gains in academic success. At McNary, the gains are reflected in other ways.

“The biggest difference was in referrals. The kids that didn’t do the program might have 40 to 50 referrals their freshman year and the kids that did only have five or six. That’s a testament to the teachers who come back to be part of this program during the summer,” Murray said.

One student Murray worked closely with last year had more than 50 referrals in his eighth grade year. He had one in his first year at McNary.

“A lot of the kids just need some positive interactions in school,” Murray said.

Those interactions, like the students themselves, take many forms. When teacher Ryan Somerville, a Crystal Apple Award honoree, had one student becoming overly distracted and another wanting to sleep, he took them out into the hallway for a race to the end of the hall and back.

More than one kid has tracked down a teacher they got to know in the transition program and asked for help when they are struggling with a class during the regular academic year.

With changing standards for graduation, Murray said the big focus this year has been math. Students will no longer get credit toward graduation for math classes lower than algebra 1, and they’ll need three credit hours of algebra 1 and higher to graduate.

“A lot of students, when they fail to graduate, fail because of poor performance in their freshman year. We’re targeting them now through this program to try and prepare them for what’s ahead,” Murray said.

In addition to fundamentals of math and writing, two Celtic teachers and coaches, Miguel Camarena and Kevin Wise, are teaching a class on career planning giving students a view of the options they’ll have upon graduation for further education and what might await them if they end up stuck in a minimum wage job.

The sports piece is also an important one for Murray because athletics were a lifeline for him during his high school years. He’s even got two football players from Western Oregon University assisting as mentors during transition school this summer.

That’s in addition to students like Monrroy who saw how the program helped him and wanted to wanted to return the favor.

“I thought I could give something back to the community. I want to be a police officer,” Monrroy said.

He’ll be a senior this year, but he’s already got a plan for what’s next.

“I’m going to go to Chemeketa Community College and be part of their criminal justice program. Then I would like to go on and get my master’s degree in criminal law,” Monrroy said.