By Miranda Klein , firstname.lastname@example.org 3:10 p.m. CST November 25, 2016
Students leave Bolton High School as the final bell rings ending the school day.
The number of at-risk students at Rapides high schools is growing, according to 2012-15 state department of education data. To reach those students, officials say it's a matter of connecting.
Enrollment records show the district's five largest high schools — Alexandria Senior High, Bolton, Peabody Magnet, Pineville and Tioga — serving greater percentages of students classified as "at-risk," or economically disadvantaged, each year.
Rapides Executive Assistant Superintendent Kim Bennett said the state looks at a student’s free and reduced lunch eligibility, attendance, test history and discipline history to determine the designation.
Here is a breakdown of some of the demographic changes by schools.
At Bolton, 71 percent of students are now classified as at-risk, as are 50 percent of students at Pineville. The two schools saw the highest percentage growth at 10 and 11 percent. That is despite the fact Bolton enrollment has dropped from 628 to 549 students during the same time period. (According to the district, there are 586 students attending the school this year.)
Alexandria Senior High and Tioga, which have had the most overall enrollment growth since 2012, saw just a 3 and 4 percent jump in their at-risk populations. ASH has moved from 50 to 54 percent, and Tioga from 66 to 69.
At Peabody Magnet High, 90 percent of students were classified as at-risk in 2015, up from 85 percent in 2012.
Bennett, a former principal at Tioga High, attributed the higher percentages across the board to the district’s efforts to prevent students from dropping out of school in junior high.
"We are doing a better job of keeping our kids in school," she said. "A huge transition year is eighth- to ninth-grade, and historically, we have lost students."
The combined population of ASH, Bolton, Peabody, Pineville and Tioga is higher today than four years ago.
According to LDOE records, there were 4,750 students enrolled at the schools in 2012. The department has not updated its website with 2016 enrollment counts from the district, which show there are now 4,974 students enrolled at the five schools, and 224 more than in 2012.
Bennett said district support in a few different forms helps all Rapides schools, and high schools specifically, meet the needs of their at-risk populations.
For K-12, response to intervention — or RTI — helps schools react to individual circumstances students, and the district has implemented grade recovery and monitoring programs.
"Our principals and the district looks at our failure rate every 9 weeks," Bennett said. "That’s not just to say, 'Whoa, you’ve got a high failure rate.' It’s to say, 'What are you doing to address this failure rate?' There’s a difference … It's, 'What is the plan?'"
In junior high and high schools, Bennett said mentoring has been key in keeping students in school and encouraging them to stay the course.
The district introduced the national dropout prevention Jobs For American Graduates in Rapides schools three years ago and expanded the program into middle schools to reach eighth- and ninth-graders.
Tammie Santos, a JAG specialist at Peabody, said students who fall under the "at-risk" label and qualify for JAG face tough circumstances. Some are homeless or have parents who have been incarcerated.
Yet 100 percent of seniors who went through the JAG program at Peabody last year graduated and went on to find a job or continue their education after high school, Santos said. She owes that at least partially to the fact that they had an adult there for them.
"(We're) their advocate more than anything," Santos said.
Last month, The Town Talk spotlighted a student Santos mentored who landed an internship and was hired at Cleco after graduating in May.
"(It) made a big difference for me, and it's going to make a big difference for other kids," Tyrone Allen, 18, said of the JAG program.
JAG mentors, referred to as specialists, are assigned a maximum of 50 students and required to log at least 100 contact hours with each student.
Bennett said some schools, like Tioga and Pineville, also have less formal mentoring programs led by faculty and upperclassmen who connect with students as freshmen. But their mission is the same.
"To connect students with an adult and with their peers," Bennett said. "That's huge."
2016 Rapides high school enrollment
· Alexandria Senior High: 1,382
· Bolton: 586
· Peabody Magnet: 586
· Pineville: 1,421
· Tioga: 999
Source: Rapides Parish School Board
2012, 2015 percentages of at-risk students
· Alexandria Senior High: 50, 54
· Bolton: 61, 71
· Peabody Magnet: 85, 90
· Pineville: 41, 50
· Tioga: 66, 69
Source: Louisiana Department of Education