The county graduation rate stands at 87.62 percent, according to Kids Count data numbers by Kansas Action for Children. That number is below the state average of 89.22 percent and peer group average of 88.66 percent.

By Chad Frey

Newton Kansan

Kelli Shell doesn’t like hearing she doesn’t count as part of the county graduation rate

Who could blame her? She has basically graduated from high school twice.

“I was home schooled in Wichita for fourth through 12th grade,” said the current Hutchinson Community College student. “I found out the certificate I had was not accredited through the state. ... I went through the GED program last year. I was tested, and was in class October through March.”

She’s not alone. If the most recent statistics hold true, one in eight high school freshmen will not graduate on time with their class, if at all.

The county graduation rate stands at 87.62 percent, according to Kids Count data numbers by Kansas Action for Children. That number is below the state average of 89.22 percent and peer group average of 88.66 percent.

The rate tracks how many of the 2002-’03 freshmen graduated in 2006, which is why students like Shell are not counted. Aside from first earning a diploma, which was not recognized by the state, because she enrolled in a GED program it took her longer to collect the equivalent of a high school diploma.

“I straddle the line on this,” said John Bjerum, director of Harvey County Communities In Schools. “Graduation for high school is a big accomplishment, and one we culturally expect from everyone. But at the same time, they do exceptionally well with alternative education here.”

Shell said the GED is no walk in the park — something she thought was more difficult than much of traditional high school.

“It’s not an easy test,” Shell said. “And while I was doing that, I was working two jobs, going through a divorce and trying to keep my house. I was in complete exhaustion. ... People think those who get a GED are losers, but I have met many incredible people in the class.”

Bjerum agreed. He said students should get “extra props” for going through the GED program, and the educational system should get credit for those students when they complete their academic programs.

“In the data, they should get credit for those who go to alternative high school and GED programs,” Bjerum said.

Bjerum said the data should be used to ask big questions — why are 12 percent of Harvey County students not graduating from traditional high school, and why some of those 12 percent do not go on to get a GED.

“It’s easy to put it on substance abuse, gangs and parents,” Bjerum said. “Those are all factors, but it’s really a lot of things over time,” Bjerum said. “There are factors and life choices where graduating high school on time is not the right fit for them.”

All of those are reasons that concern Newton High School principal Ken Rickard.

“If we lose one student, that is too many for me,” Rickard said. “We shouldn’t be satisfied with 88 percent.”

Rickard said there is no magic bullet for keeping kids in school but had one idea of what can keep school relevant for students.

He stresses relationships between students and teachers.

“You have to build that relationship,” Rickard said. “Teachers need to be positive role models for these kids, and they need build a good relationship with them.”

Bjerum mirrored that sentiment and said building relationships with students is why Communities In Schools is pursuing a model which places a worker in each school every day.

“You can have a strong curriculum and excellent interventions for students, but if you don’t have relationships with students, it won’t work,” Bjerum said. “If you have a relationship built around it, there is accountability there. It’s just about taking an interest in a kid. Most kids, to be successful, need five to seven positive role models. After mom and dad, there are five more needed.”

Being a positive role model for her kids is part of what led Shell back to the classroom and to pursue a college degree.

“This is about what I am doing for my kids,” Shell said. “I want a job that will allow me to focus on me and my kids. Getting my degree just opens doors for that. My GED opened the doors to Hutchinson Community College.”

Giving students more than the curriculum is key, Rickard said.

Rickard said in addition to creating a relationship with students, finding places for them to plug into and take ownership at the school is important. That’s why extracurriculars are so important, he said.

“Kids need to be involved, and they need an opportunity to give back to the community,” Rickard said.

“We’re so used to asking what we need to give kids. I think some get so used to receiving, they don’t know how to give,” Bjerum said. “Teaching them that is empowerment.”