Career exploration class at Goshen school could keep kids from dropping out, principal says

Merit Learning Center graduated 109 students this year, but Principal Kristen Watts is still looking for a way to reach students who are dropping out of the alternative education program.

Posted on June 24, 2014 at 7:47 a.m.

Twenty-six kids dropped out of Merit Learning Center, an alternative high school in Goshen, in the most recent school year. 

There are more encouraging numbers — like the 283 students who enrolled or the 109 who graduated — but Principal Kristen Watt is thinking about what she could have done differently for those 26 kids who left.

Merit became the first school of its kind in Indiana to be accredited in November 2013.

That means the school voluntarily met a set of education standards.

“I feel like the kids we lose are the ones we can’t get engaged,” she said during an interview at the school on Monday, June 23. We aren't making a strong enough connection for the relevance of ’doing school.’ That’s the gap — that’s what we are trying to figure out.“

The school is starting a career exploration academy in the fall, aimed at sophomores and juniors who might be feeling like it just isn't worth it to finish high school. 

The academy will be an elective course where students learn what they need to do to get into a career they want. 

Kids in the career exploration course could job shadow at a local business. They could visit nearby colleges. They might even take some introductory-level college classes online, while they are at Merit for their high school work. 

Merit helps kids graduate from high school when they have difficulties like a pregnancy, when they have to work to support themselves, or when they fall behind academically. 

More importantly, there will be a dedicated staff member who’s encouraging their individual career goals all the time and providing support when ”the bottom drops out of whatever plan they had,“ Watt said.

"We are going to start asking ourselves, okay, what is the missing piece for this kid?” she said. “For us, it’s about taking a student who hasn't had a whole lot of academic success and making sure that failure is not an option.”

Merit’s graduation rate has been going up consistently over the past few years:

81 graduates in 2010-11 
86 graduates in 2011-12
94 graduates in 2012-13
109 graduates in 2013-14

Merit received a grant for $10,000 from United Way of Elkhart County to fund the start of the career exploration academy. 

That money is paying for a consultant affiliated with Indiana Youth Institute to help Watt do research on local opportunities and network with local professionals, and it also pays for supplies and curriculum.

No additional teachers will be hired specifically for the career exploration course, although Watt the school does have one teaching position and two other full-time instructor positions open now

To learn more about those positions, visit Goshen Community Schools’ website

Watt said she’s also looking for support from community members. 

“I need people who will help teach kids life, and be patient with them,” she said. “Host a kid in a three-week job shadow. Anyone who would want to come in and talk to kids about what it means to be a good employee. We need...teachers with passion.”

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks

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