Craig Crawford is ready to roll up his sleeves and dig deep to make gains on Helena School District’s low graduation rate.
Crawford, 43, began his new position as the alternative education coordinator for Helena Public Schools at the beginning of July. He hasn’t made any specific goals yet about Helena’s 72 percent graduation rate according to the Office of Public Instruction, but says it’s certainly not acceptable.
“Our goal is to get them all graduated,” Crawford said. “That might not be realistic, but we can certainly do better, and that’s part of what we go after every day.”
Superintendent Bruce Messinger says OPI’s numbers are problematic, and because the district uses a different way to collect drop-out data, is inaccurate. Messinger says the district’s rate is in the mid 80s and has been stable in recent years. OPI reports that the not only did the graduation rate in Helena drop in the 2008-09 school year from the previous year, but it’s also below those of Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls and Missoula.
Each year the state data is computed in a different way, and different from district’s calculations, Messinger said. For example, if a student is in his or her fifth year in high school, they are considered a dropout with OPI, but not with the district, Messinger said.
The differing opinions between the district superintendent and the state superintendent will change this spring, thanks to a new student identification number, which will enable the state to better track students when they transfer or drop out.
Even so, Crawford says graduation rate is a top priority in his new position, and he plans to work with other administrators to address the local problem.
“(Helena’s rate) is a comparable number across the nation, but we aren’t satisfied, and part of my charge is to find ways we can get those kids that we are losing or that we’ve lost, and get them to come back.”
There are a number of opportunities the district has in place to do just that, from a typical GED program to the Access to Success program which started two years ago. Access to Success provides 16- to 21-year-olds at risk of dropping out the opportunity to go to school in a college setting because it’s housed at University of Montana–Helena. Crawford does not oversee that program, but does work with the at-risk population in Helena to determine what situation is best suited for them.
Crawford says the traditional school setting is challenged in recent years to meet the needs of all today’s students.
“We have to look at how to best serve the needs of all those kids by making education relevant,” he said.
It’s not good enough anymore for teachers to merely say an algorithm will be helpful in a student’s future, he said.
“We need to show them how it will directly apply to their futures,” Crawford said. “We want (students) to sit in class and have kids say, ‘I can see how this will help me in the future.’ ”
Crawford believes he can relate to the young adults attending the Project for Alternative Learning, or PAL, because of his alternative educational path.
After his first stint at college he operated a two-store Domino’s Pizza franchise and was responsible for every facet of operations. Nearly all of his employees were of high-school age. It wasn’t until an afternoon of playing Legos with his son and watching the “light” go on how to assemble them that he decided to return to school to become an educator.
The concept wasn’t foreign since he came from a family of educators and married one. He started his teaching career at the middle school level and later became the administrator of an elementary school. Most recently he was the assistant principal of Thomasville High School in Georgia.
Crawford made his sales pitch to his family last summer by way of a family vacation. His family, he says, was easily convinced.
They found a townhouse in the South Hills and took it sight unseen just a few days before Crawford started in his new job.
Crawford says he and his family feel fortunate to have relocated to Montana, and are in awe every day at the view alone. They spend many nights a week hiking.
But outdoor activities aside, Crawford is aware of the job ahead of him, and is ready for the hard work. He has many ideas floating around in his head, but says for now he’s overcoming a learning curve and getting to know PAL and the Helena community.
Crawford, who works under a 12-month contract making $80,181, said the district has the mindset to reach more students with its whole-child approach.
It’s possible that the student body (at 70) could expand, or that its students could attend PAL part time and another school the rest, he said. Another option is PAL may run all year because at-risk students need mentoring year-round, he said.
“You have to have relationships to have learning,” he said. “Maintaining those relationships through the summer would be beneficial.”
It’s possible that some students need a transitional program when they fall behind at Helena or Capital high schools.
“As alternative coordinator we’ll need to look where things can be morphed while making sure to gather good data,” he said.
Reporter Alana Listoe:
447-4081 or email@example.com