Esperanza "Espi" Martinez, 19, works on an assignment about poverty with help from McKay High School assistant principal Ricardo Larios in the school library on Aug. 13, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
On a Thursday morning in August just before 10 a.m., 18-year-old Angel Hance Route woke up to her brother knocking on her door.
She bolted out of bed in her pajamas and discovered her high school principal Rob Schoepper, and student mentor Ken Ramirez, on her porch.
Hance Route was supposed to be at McKay High School at 9 a.m. for a summer school class. She’s working to finish her last credit and a half toward graduation.
When she didn’t show up or answer her phone, Schoepper and Ramirez hopped in Schoepper’s truck to bring her in. She’d planned to shower before coming in, but Schoepper told her not to worry about it — no one would judge her, and they had food at the school if she hadn’t eaten.
“Just brush your teeth, pull your hair back and come with us,” he said. She nodded, and reappeared a few minutes later.
“Hey, thanks for not coming out and killing me,” Ramirez said.
“Thanks for not being mad at me,” Hance Route replied.
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The intervention was part of the school’s latest effort to boost its graduation rate by doing “whatever it takes,” as Schopper describes the plan.
For the month of August, that means having staff work one-on-one with seniors who have almost completed their diplomas but are a class or two shy of graduating.
Oregon allows seniors until Aug. 30 to finish high school in order to be counted as part of the class of 2019. Most seniors who are missing credits in June opt for summer school, which runs until mid-July in Salem-Keizer.
But every year, there are seniors who still don’t finish in summer school. Some aren’t able to attend because of work or other commitments. Some are missing too many credits to finish them all. Some simply need a bit more help.
Until now, they’ve never had an option besides enrolling as fifth-year seniors, since there are no high school credit programs running in August. Many opt not to finish instead.
Angel Hance Route works on a 20th century history assignment in the McKay High School library on Aug. 8, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
“We still have all these kids that are this close,” Schoepper said, holding his fingers a fraction of an inch apart. “How many children have gotten to this point and never crossed the line?”
Now, McKay staff are working with students in August to take advantage of those last six weeks between the end of summer school and the state deadline.
McKay is the largest of Salem-Keizer’s six traditional high schools and has the second-lowest graduation rate: about three-quarters finish in four years.
Increasing that number has been a priority of Schoepper’s. In 2018, the school saw a four percentage point increase after staff spent spring semester working intensively with students who were on the verge of graduating but might not make it without extra help.
Last summer, as McKay staff talked about ways to help more kids earn diplomas, they zeroed in on the six weeks between the end of summer school and the Aug. 30 deadline. That window was untapped promise, so they launched a rough plan for 2019.
In late July, school counselors, administrators and teachers sat down and identified nine seniors who were close enough to a diploma to finish the work in August.
They met with each student individually on Aug. 5 and brought their parents to McKay or spoke on the phone. Each student has a manila folder detailing what’s left to do for a diploma – courses to pass, essential skills tests to complete – and handwritten notes about potential challenges and communications.
Schoepper is using state dropout prevention money and federal funds targeted toward schools with a high number of low-income students to pay staff for the extra hours.
Staff said the students were eager for the opportunity.
“Some of them were in tears,” said Tara Shiffer, an English teacher helping with the effort.
The students agreed to put in the effort, and school started Aug. 8 in the McKay library.
Misael Manzano, 18, writes an essay to finish his final English class for a McKay High School diploma (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Getting everyone to the library was itself an accomplishment. Students who have stopped coming to class or are busy working to support their families aren’t always eager to hear from high school administrators, and staff went to their homes and jobs to get them on board.
Rodriguez did much of the groundwork, enlisting her daughter, a recent McKay graduate, to track down students on social media and figure out where they work.
“I just drop by and hope they’re there,” she said with a laugh.
But the extra push is exactly what some students need. Hance Route settled down at a table start on a health and wellness class. She had poor attendance her senior year, in part because her father works out of town and her mother has an early-morning job, so they weren’t home to make sure she got to school.
A bad breakup got her further behind. She finished the year three classes short of a diploma and tried to make them up in summer school, but struggled because she didn’t have a computer to do assignments on or transportation to school.
For most of high school, she felt the staff didn’t care about her, she said. Having Schoepper and Ramirez show up on her porch to get her out of bed made her realize that wasn’t true.
“They’re encouraging me,” she said.
Ken Ramirez plays with Mia in the McKay High School library as Mia's mother, Alejandra Cuesta Meraz, works to finish assignments. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
Ramirez’s role is district-wide, working specifically with Pacific Islander students to help them graduate. He spends much of his time at McKay, which has a large Islander population.
With a leather vest and tattoos covering his neck and arms, Ramirez doesn’t look like many students’ idea of an administrator. He views his job as pushing students from a place of love, stepping in as a “big brother, uncle, whatever they need that day.”
Inside, the atmosphere is casual. Staff, including Schoepper, assistant principals, student mentors and teachers, work one-on-one with students, answering questions about economics or helping them find evidence in their readings to support their points.
Shiffer worked with Misael Manzano, 18, on an essay. Manzano was making up one semester of freshman year English, and the essay was his final assignment. He was making good progress, she said, though he doesn’t always ask for help when he needs it.
Assistant principal Ricardo Larios, who makes a point of giving students a hard time in a mix of English and Spanish, jumped in.
“You’re proud?” Larios teased him in Spanish.
“What if I am?” Misael joked back before going back to writing in a neat cursive hand.
Alejandra Cuesta Meraz works with McKay assistant principal Wendy Stradley pm Aug. 13, 2019 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
For Alejandra Cuesta Meraz, the August program is her best shot at earning a diploma. The 19-year-old has a 9-month-old daughter, Mia, and a second child due in October.
Cuesta Meraz missed two months of school during her pregnancy. She intended to finish in summer school, but Mia got sick so Cuesta Meraz had to miss class.
McKay staff said they’d help watch Mia so she could finish her high school work. As Cuesta Meraz worked through a 20th century history assignment, assistant principal Wendy Stradley walked laps around the building with Mia as the baby cooed and played with Stradley’s ID badge.
Cuesta Meraz said she plans to stay at home with her children for a bit before pursuing a career in law enforcement. Her father and grandfather are Navy veterans who are eager to see her earn a diploma.
“They’re excited. They always try to motivate me,” she said.
Schoepper is hopeful three students will finish their work this week.
One came in needing to make up two units in an economics class and one test. She finished the work on the first day of the program and will complete the test this week.
It’s a very small amount of work, but without the McKay staff spending August working with students, she would have had to retake the class as part of a full semester of high school.
Knowing how close the students are keeps staff energy high. As students worked, Schoepper talked with his assistant principals and mentors about another student who hadn’t yet come in to work on her classes.
“We’ll get her. We got 22 days,” Schoepper said.
Correction: This article originally misspelled Angel Hance Route's last name.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.