Saturday, December 20, 2014

Raising grad rates: Principal, programs take aim at OHS retention problems

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 1/18/2013

As a former mathematics teacher, Ryan Cobbs, Ottawa High School principal, understands numbers.

For Cobbs, who has a doctorate degree in educational leadership policy studies from the University of Kansas, the graduation figures at OHS tell a compelling story.

As a former mathematics teacher, Ryan Cobbs, Ottawa High School principal, understands numbers.

For Cobbs, who has a doctorate degree in educational leadership policy studies from the University of Kansas, the graduation figures at OHS tell a compelling story.

“Based on late November numbers, 165 students are enrolled in the class of 2013, which includes Ottawa High School, Ottawa Learning Center and Ottawa’s virtual school,” Cobbs said in a Jan. 12 interview. “That would seem to be a pretty typical number for a district of our size. But when you factor in that 262 different students have been a part of the class of 2013 at some point in the past four years, you begin to understand Ottawa High School is host to a very transient population.”

A graduate of Ottawa High School and Ottawa University, Cobbs said about 25 percent of the students in the current class of 2013 did not start their high school years at OHS.

“There have been another 48 students that have transferred into OHS that have transferred out again before finishing their road to graduation,” he said. “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Cobbs said the transient student population has been a topic at the forefront of conversation since he took over as principal July 1.

No single reason accounts for the majority of transfers, Cobbs said. Students having to work to support fellow siblings, homeless students being passed from one relative’s or friend’s house to another, divorces, job transfers — the list is about as long as the number of graduates, Cobbs said.

“It’s not a matter of students transferring here from neighboring school districts, either. Sure, you’re always going to have one or two of those, but our transfers come from all over the country — California, Texas, Florida and a number of other states,” Cobbs said. “What I’m trying to help our community understand that we are no longer teaching students that start and finish in [Ottawa] USD 290 schools as a rule. The classrooms of the 1950s are not the classrooms of today.”

With nearly 50 percent of the high school’s student population qualifying for free or reduced lunches, Cobbs said, those numbers also tell a compelling story about how the effects of poverty — and the socioeconomic issues that come with it — can weigh on the school’s efforts to educate its students.

“Even with the hurdles and roadblocks, our staff and students are still making extensive gains,” Cobbs said.

To illustrate that point: The class of 2013 has the opportunity to post an 89-percent graduation rate, Cobbs said, a gain of about 5 percent over last year.

“I’m not saying we will see a 5-percent growth in our graduation rate every year, but we are making steady progress, and I don’t think 90 percent is unrealistic in the future,” he said. “I would venture a guess that not too many Frontier League schools have graduation rates higher than the low 90s.”  

How has the district been able to raise its graduation rates, in spite of its transient population and the socioeconomic issues facing the community? A number of ways, Cobbs said.



The school district has expanded the Ottawa Learning Center, which is the district’s alternative school, Cobbs said. In previous years, the 21-credit diploma course has been a computerized version of academics, he said.

“It allowed for flexible scheduling and quick completion, based upon the level of understanding of the student and motivation,” Cobbs said. “What it lacked was the ability for us to provide these students with an actual skill. Therefore, we opened up our career and technical education courses to these students in an effort to keep them engaged in school as well as teach them a skill that they can use in their career option.”


Starting Ottawa’s virtual program has been a big plus for the district this year, Cobbs said.

“We have lost a number of students to other virtual programs in the past, including Lawrence Virtual, Insight, K12 and Mullinville,” Cobbs said. “A number of these students come back to us with little or no credit. We felt that by creating our own virtual program, we could provide these students the flexibility in instruction they desire, as well as build the relationships with them necessary to keep them progressing at the appropriate level.

“By utilizing OHS staff with these students, the relationships that were formed in the past make these students actual people instead of just kids behind a computer, which is what they become in another district,” Cobbs said.



The district’s credit recovery program was moved to the OHS campus this semester.

“Before, this program was housed at [Ottawa Learning Center], and our students would have to leave and go to a different facility to start,” Cobbs said. “This was time-consuming, and — by having it at OHS — we can help our students make good choices about doing the work needed to progress.”

Students can do the work to earn unfinished high school credits in small increments between activities, Cobbs said, and they have access to staff when they need help.

“We also provided them a portal to work at home, so that they can do the work on their own, at their own pace and on their own time,” he said.


The school’s FLEX program, an after-school tutoring program that Cobbs developed four years ago, has expanded to include Wednesdays.

“It has three teachers in the areas of math, English and science to help our students, or just create a quiet place for our kids to study after school,” Cobbs said. “A major issue that we have found is that on [early release] Wednesdays, we do not host FLEX because of our professional learning communities. This is a prime time that we lose students, because they have a full hour before our activities and practices can start.

“So we will be utilizing our elective staff members on a rotational basis to host the FLEX program on Wednesdays, to provide one more opportunity for our students to get the help or the study time that they need,” Cobbs said.



The high school is expanding into the realm of 1-to-1, Web-based teaching.  

“We are constantly looking for different ways to reach our students,” Cobbs said. “The iPad classes are the obvious window to this idea. However, what may be lost is the number of teachers at OHS that are utilizing web-based platforms for our students to access the classroom material, submit homework and follow up with teachers.”  

Web-based instruction has expanded the school day to provide students with more flexibility, Cobbs said.

“This provides a 24-hour portal of instruction that our students can utilize and learn on their time — extending the 7:45 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. school day into a day that lasts around the clock.”

The school has implemented a number of other changes, Cobbs said, including differentiation of instruction, better use of special education services, communication with parents, opening the door to the community and its business leaders, amongst others.

In his office at OHS, Cobbs has a spreadsheet on his computer that tracks the amount of communication taking place between the school and parents, noting every time a parent or guardian is contacted, and whether the call is positive, negative or neutral/informational.

Only a handful of students on the long list did not have any marks beside their names.

“We are making a real push to improve our communication with parents and the community,” Cobbs said. “We are doing a lot of good things here that most people don’t know about, and that’s because we have not always done a good job of communicating in the past. That is changing.”

One other number Cobbs said he is pleased about thus far in his first year as principal adds up to zero. That’s the number of dropout slips he has signed for the class of 2013.

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