CROCKETT -- Instead of sleeping in and lazily enjoying the summer, about 130 teens in the John Swett school district are taking online classes so they can graduate on time with their peers.
The summer program -- combined with beefed-up truancy enforcement, consistent discipline and an emphasis on the importance of a high school education -- have helped John Swett raise its graduation rate by nearly 13 percentage points in one year, while lowering its dropout rate by about 8 percentage points, said Superintendent Mike McLaughlin.
"We've put in some really strict policies starting at middle school," said McLaughlin, who came to the district about four years ago. "Even though we're not getting funded for it, we still believe in it."
The tiny district in West Contra Costa County saw the biggest graduation rate improvement of any in the county, soaring from 75.3 percent of its students graduating in 2010 to 88.2 percent the following year. It also cut its dropout rate more than other county district, reducing the percentage of students who left school without a diploma or equivalent from 16.7 in 2010 to 8.8 in 2011.
"We do virtual online credit recovery in the summer," he said. "We started doing this two years ago. Now, students know if you want to be at a comprehensive high school, you need to stay on pace. It's not punitive. As administrators and educators, we have to have interventions and accountability."
While many districts have eliminated summer school or reduced it drastically due to budget cuts, John Swett has added a mandatory program for 20 students who finished eighth grade without achieving a C average and who scored well below proficient levels on standardized tests. The other 109 students in summer school at Willow High School, the continuation and alternative education campus, are teens who failed required classes and need to make up the credits to graduate.
David Flores, 16, of Pinole, said he likes his online physical science class because he can work at his own pace, take notes and ask for help from a teacher when he needs it. Admitting that he slacked off a bit in his freshman year, Flores said he also likes the idea of a new program for incoming ninth-graders who struggle in eighth grade.
"If they're serious about it, it might help," he said. "From eighth grade to freshman year is a big difference."
Harpreet Sing, 17, of Hercules, said the online U.S. History course he was taking allowed him to review the information to be sure he knew it before taking the tests.
"It's great," he said, while studying with classmates Tuesday. "I like it because it provides a lot of information that you can't really get in class, and the quizzes correspond to the information provided."
The district showed its concern for the success of its students when it introduced the intervention program for incoming ninth-graders, said Principal Joanne Clark.
Clark said she told the students the district cares about them and didn't want them to proceed to the ninth grade without being ready.
"The parents were very receptive," she said. "No one saw it as punishment. We need to assist students who have struggled." John Angell, the district's truancy officer, has helped get students to school since his position was created two years ago. He visits families in their homes and talks to parents about why their children aren't showing up to classes, offering help if needed.
"There could be a million reasons why they're not coming to school," he said. "I try to find the root of the problem and get them the resources they need to put them on the right track."
John Swett school district 2010 and 2011 graduation rates and increase; 2010 and 2011 dropout rates and decrease, compared with county and state.
Level 2010 Grad Rate 2011 Grad Rate Increase 2010 Dropout Rate 2011 Dropout Rate Decrease
District 75.3 88.2 +12.9 16.7 8.8 -7.9
County 79.9 82.2 +2.3 13.8 11.0 -2.8
State 74.8 76.3 +1.5 16.6 14.4 -2.2
Source: California Department of Education
To see county, district and school results throughout the state, visit http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest and select "Graduates" in the second drop-down menu.