Eagle Point graduation coaches make vital connections with struggling students

Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA), Jake Arnold
Eagle Point School District

A year-old mural on the side of the Eagle Point School District office symbolizes each of the schools in the district and the district’s commitment to helping students to a brighter future. The young artists who helped create the mural were participants in LIFE Art, a program for at-risk youths. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)   

Robert Joe, graduation coach at the Eagle Point School District, gets emotional when he talks about his students.

“For a lot of these students, school is all they have,” he said. “They don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They don’t know where they are sleeping.”

His intervention is making a difference for students such as sophomore Lorena Arroyo, who was moved to tears when comparing him to a father figure.

“He tells me I can be a better person,” she said. With Joe’s support, Arroyo is getting mostly A’s this year and thinking about becoming an orthodontist.

Eagle Point High School has an 85 percent graduation rate, 10 percentage points above the state average. Superintendent Cynda Rickert emphasizes sustainable budgets and building relationships with students to give them individual support. Last school year the district began a limited graduation coach pilot program.

The sprawling district north of Medford hired Joe in April 2017 and handed him the case files of 74 students who were failing multiple classes. Based on credit requirements, students failing just two classes freshman year are already off track and in danger of not graduating. 

Starting with less than three months left in the academic year, Joe helped 52 to pass everything.

Sophomore Carlos Seiter said Joe showed him how education would help him in life. He says they have formed a bond.

“If we need anything, not even just school, we can come in here and get help,” Seiter said.

The program was so successful, the district brought Joe back to continue helping the class as sophomores and hired Lisa Papa to coach the freshmen.

Rickert believes in judiciously investing in education programs. One of her first priorities when she was hired in 2007 was to develop a balanced and sustainable budget. She successfully advocated for aligning curriculum and policies and cutting extraneous programs.

When the recession hit, the district’s board cut staff and programs but not school days. The moves generated resistance, and teachers went on strike in 2012. But Rickert helped keep the focus on a balanced budget supporting students’ well-being.

Scott Whitman, Eagle Point business manager, praises the district leadership’s “budget sanity.” He said a stable budget allowed for investment in focused programs, instructional coaches for teachers and graduation coaches.

“We’re not reacting to add back school days,” he said.

Rickert emphasizes a balanced and sustainable budget because it allows for long-term investing in proven programs backed by research.

“It’s about kids but the bottom line is you have to have money,” Rickert said.

The district is reviewing the efficacy of graduation coaches and considering funding them through a Measure 98 grant. The tentative plan is to allow Papa to continue with the class of 2021 and add another graduation coach next year.

Rickert says Eagle Point is also looking at reading coaches for kindergarteners. Studies show that students who lag behind reading standards by third grade struggle to graduate.

Papa, handed an entire class at the beginning of the school year, has been refining the graduation coach role. She spends lots of time in classes, getting to know students and finding out who needs what. She also spends time encouraging those who are already succeeding.

“We want to bring the whole class up,” she said.

Joe is passionate about the need to build trust with students, the value of caring and the importance of considering the whole person.

 “Coming into the pilot program, we talked about graduation rates, graduation rates, graduation rates,” Joe said. “At a certain point, that turns into how do we make these students not only into better students, but into better people?”