School turns to longer hours, virtual classes to boost diplomas

February 26, 2013

According to some federal calculations, Arizona had the highest high school drop-out rate in the country in 2009-2010 school year. And that has education leaders worried about the future for those young people. In the second part of our series Educating Arizona, KJZZ’s Jude Joffe-Block takes us inside a Phoenix high school that is trying a new approach to get students to graduate.

camelback high Senior Deshon Bell is one of more than 100 students enrolled in Camelback's Virtual High School. (Photo by Jude Joffe-Block - KJZZ)

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK: It’s late afternoon at Camelback High, and the last bell rang hours ago. A cluster of students practices step dance moves outside.

JOFFE-BLOCK: About 9 out of 10 Camelback students are minority and qualify for a free lunch. State data show the drop-out rate here was 4.4 percent last year, higher than the average Arizona high school. But Camelback is working hard to change that.

JOFFE-BLOCK: One way is through more flexible scheduling.

KARIN MENDEZ: Ok so do you need help with this?


JOFFE-BLOCK: Teacher Karin Mendez is in this classroom until after 6 p.m. most evenings. Around 25 students sit in front of computers taking digital courses. The program is known as Camelback Virtual High School, and it began as a pilot last spring.

MENDEZ: In this room we have students taking U.S. History 1, U.S. History 2, World History 1, World History 2, Economics, and Government

JOFFE-BLOCK: Many of the more than 100 students in Camelback Virtual High are retaking classes they failed or making up credits after the regular school day so they can graduate on time. Mendez says this option is preventing some students who’ve fallen far behind from giving up.

MENDEZ: Once they become 17, 18, they’re ready, they feel grown, they want to be out, the idea of staying another year is horrible. And they've said I would rather just drop out and try to get my GED than try to get my diploma because I don’t want to be here when I am 20 years old, I don’t want to be here when I am 19.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Phoenix urban schools have long struggled to reverse drop-out rates. One reason is demographics. There are high rates of English language learners, transient families, poverty and teen pregnancy here, all conditions that make it more difficult for students to graduate on time. Some believe the large size of the high schools here allows students to fall through the cracks.

KEVIN MANCIO: In my past, like my freshmen sophomore and junior, I wasn’t like a great student...

JOFFE-BLOCK: Kevin Mancio is a senior.

KEVIN MANCIO: I didn't come to school all the time, I skipped some days – and from that it resulted to me in not getting those credits.

JOFFE-BLOCK: To catch up, Mancio is taking three virtual classes on top of a regular school day. It means he starts school at 8 and ends at 6, and goes home to a full night of homework. He needs to complete six credits—or the equivalent of 12 classes—before June.

KEVIN MANCIO: For me it is kind of a gamble, if I keep putting in effort to it, I know I could get it done. But If I start goofing off and become unmotivated I think I wont be able to graduate on time.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Teachers say the program has benefitted several at-risk students, including teen mothers and students who juggle work and school. It’s too early to know if the program is driving down the school’s drop-out rate. But it has education experts excited.

MARJORIE KAPLAN: The opportunity for students to make up credit or to earn additional credit either virtually or through extended hours at the school is a really good step in the right direction

JOFFE-BLOCK: Marjorie Kaplan directs the Beat The Odds Institute, an education think tank in Phoenix.

KAPLAN: In the schools of the future – which should really be now—we need to create more flexible scheduling and we need to recognize that we should accommodate these students. They may want to continue school but for them its impossible with their personal situations.

camelback high Students can take credits through virtual classes until 6 p.m. most evenings at Camelback High School. (Photo by Jude Joffe-Block - KJZZ)

JOFFE-BLOCK: Back at Camelback, Deshon Bell is clicking through a digital government class that he just started this week. He is four units shy of graduation.

DESHON BELL: You have to read like every paragraph, and then like after every paragraph, sometimes that has a video.

JOFFE-BLOCK: He says if he spends multiple hours a day on this class, it won’t take long to finish.

BELL: It could take two weeks it just depends how fast or how slow you can pace yourself.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Questions remain if taking online credits over a few weeks offers the same benefit to taking a semester-long course. Teacher Karin Mendez says one advantage is that taking classes later in the day works for the teenage brain.

MENDEZ: They are more energized. I see more energy with them towards the end of my day at 5:30, 6 then I did at 8 in the morning.

JOFFE-BLOCK: As of this school year, eight out of 16 of the schools in the Phoenix Union High School District are offering extended schedules that accommodate students later in the day.