The Washington County School District has stressed the value of a high-school education in recent years, and the creation of a program called The Commander Academy is reinforcing that importance. The proof of that value can be found in a much-improved dropout rate.
The Commander Academy, which is located in the county’s central office building, was created in the second half of the 2009-10 school year as a way to help at-risk students. The need arose from a high number of dropouts, most notably in the 2005-06 school year when 18 students dropped out of Washington County High School.
“When we discussed creating the Commander Academy, we made sure to involve all stakeholders and try to determine the vision and mission of what we hoped to accomplish,” said Robin Cochran, superintendent of Washington County schools. “As a whole, we agreed that the structure of sharing an alternative program with another district (the Marion County Area Technical School) was not meeting the needs of our students and families locally. We agreed that we were responsible for the education of all of our students. We also understood that students learn differently, and that we wanted the Commander Academy to serve a multitude of students.”
Cochran added that the academy targets potential dropouts, but also supports students that have academic issues, behavioral issues, and even court-related issues, and it does so in a proactive setting of the Commander Academy.
There are key factors in selecting students who will likely benefit from the program.
“We look at the ages and credits for students, and when they realize they’re going to be 19 or 20 when they graduate, they think they’re too far behind,” said Chad Willis, director of pupil personnel for Washington County schools. “We try to identify the students who are at risk or behind and start identifying them early so we can help them.”
Willis said high school counselors Tracy Abell and Lolita Blanton work with students early in their careers to help prevent them from falling behind and becoming discouraged with education. If that doesn’t help, then administrators intervene.
“It’s not that they don’t like school, it’s usually just that they need credits,” Willis said. “When a student talks about dropping out, Paul Terrell (Washington County High School principal) and Robin (superintendent Robin Cochran) and I meet with them, and we meet with their parents. We give them the option of The Commander Academy to try to help them, because any time a kid drops out of school, that could change the course of their life.”
Terrell said he is in contact with teachers and counselors about at-risk students.
“Our teachers generally make our counselors aware if they feel a student is thinking of dropping out,” he said. “Occasionally, a parent will call and ask advice if their student is struggling. At that point, we will begin a process of talking with the student, parent and teachers about what is going on and what we can do to help. I just believe if a student drops out, I have not done my job.”
Since the academy opened, Washington County has seen its dropout rate drop significantly. In the 2005-06 school year, the local high school had 18 students drop out. That number was at 15 in the 2006-07 school year, and 12 each of the next two years. There were just two dropouts in 2009-10, and none in 2010-11.
“I think we caught seven or eight kids in the first year of The Commander Academy that would have dropped out,” Willis said. “But a kid with that piece of paper that says ‘I’m a WCHS graduate’ can go a long way. It can get them started in tech school or college, or maybe the military, and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have without that diploma.”
Terrell agreed, saying, “We must get them a high school diploma so they will at least have some opportunity in life.”
Washington County’s numbers are impressive with the strides that have been made, and when comparing local students with others in the Central Kentucky Educational Cooperative, they are second to none.
The most recent CKEC data, which is from the 2009-10 school year, shows Washington County with two dropouts, and ranked atop the list of 18 school districts in the CKEC. Also on that list are Marion (4), Boyle (10) and Nelson (20) counties. That year, Washington County’s dropout percentage was 0.34, compared to the state average of 3.19 percent. Statewide, high schools had 6,225 dropouts in 2009-10.
“We only had two dropouts that year, and that’s too many, but the state total is more than the population of some counties,” Willis added.
The Commander Academy runs with a price tag of just over $72,000 per year, including salaries, repair and maintenance, and some hardware, according to Judy Spaulding, for those who operate the program.
“Our board members and Mrs. Cochran have put an emphasis on at-risk students that could possibly drop out, and they have been great to fund our Commander Academy,” Willis said.
“Can you put a dollar amount on any child’s education, on their future? I figured that we served 39 students for about $70,000, and that translates to about $1,800 a student,” Cochran said. “Of course that does not include fixed costs, but when you think about the average students-per-pupil spending amount in most districts, that is very competitive, and we are meeting individual needs.”
Willis said in addition to serving 39 students and reducing dropout numbers, the academy has also helped 18 students from the academy to go on to graduate high school. He said without the academy, those students probably would not have finished school.
Cochran added that the academy runs with very little Safe Schools money due to state funding cuts, but she said the local district is committed to putting those funds toward The Commander Academy.
“We will continue to look for grants to support the program and hope to grow it in the future,” Cochran concluded.