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Dropping out of high school as deadly as smoking

Dropping out of high school is as deadly as smoking.

Researchers who studied the health of dropouts compared to high school graduates found that earning a diploma cut the risk of death as much as quitting smoking.

The research published in 2015 added to a growing body of evidence that education improves health.

As the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it, "Education is one of the strongest predictors of health: the more schooling people have the better their health is likely to be. Although education is highly correlated with income and occupation, evidence suggests that education exerts the strongest influence on health."

People with more education tend to live longer, while those with less schooling are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as smoking, be overweight and get less physical activity, the CDC says.

So when Eagle Point High School proposed hiring a graduation coach this spring to get freshmen with failing grades back on track, AllCare Health responded quickly, providing $20,000 for the coach's salary plus $5,000 for gift cards to reward students who improve their grades.

AllCare Health coordinates the physical, dental and mental health care of local Oregon Health Plan patients. AllCare Health and Jackson Care Connect, the other coordinated care organization serving local OHP patients, have a history of funding projects that indirectly improve health — often through preventive efforts.

The CCOs have provided funding for projects such as a mobile shower facility for the homeless, gym memberships, nutrition classes, a clubhouse for people living with mental illness, a mobile food pantry with fruits and vegetables, outdoor fitness equipment at Hawthorne Park in Medford and intramural sports for elementary school kids.

Eagle Point High School's idea for the graduation coach folds into a larger project launched in 2012 by the United Way of Jackson County. Called the Big Idea, the multi-pronged project aims for a 100 percent graduation rate for the class of 2020 — a tall order, considering Oregon had the second lowest graduation rate in the nation in 2012, with just 68 percent of the class of 2012 earning a diploma in four years. Oregon's graduation rate crept up to 69 percent in 2013, but the state finished dead last that year as other states made greater gains.

The Big Idea cohort has nearly 1,400 students from the Medford School District, Eagle Point School District and Three Rivers School District in Josephine County. When the project was launched, the kids were in fifth grade. They are now freshmen.

Eagle Point High School tackled its 74 percent 2012 graduation rate, bringing it up to 81 percent in 2015, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

One of its efforts was to promote the value of regular attendance.

Still, after the first semester of the current school year, 74 of Eagle Point High School's 267 freshmen had one or more failing grades, putting them at risk of not graduating on time — or ever. More than 1 in 4 freshmen were already in trouble.

When Eagle Point High School looked at the attendance records of those 74 freshmen, it found they actually had good attendance, showing up almost 96 percent of the time, said Phil Ortega, attendance and safe schools coordinator for the Eagle Point School District.

"No longer can we say the reason kids are failing class is because they're not showing up — because they are," Ortega said. "That's what's surprising."

Further conversations with students found they were failing for a variety of reasons. If they missed school or didn't hand in an assignment, they felt they had fallen hopelessly behind. They would start attending only the classes they thought they could pass, Ortega said.

Others simply weren't organized and had to be taught how to organize their thoughts, binders and notes — plus how to juggle and prioritize their homework across seven different classes each semester.

"They have to be organized and know what assignment needs to be prioritized based on what's due next," Ortega said.

United Way Executive Director Dee Anne Everson said intervening early with struggling freshmen will help get them back on track toward graduation.

"If you do it during their senior year, it's way too late," she said.

Everson said dropping out increases a person's risk of poverty, physical and mental health problems, unemployment, problems finding adequate housing and reliance on services provided by the government and social services organizations. Failing to graduate impacts the individual, the community and the economy.

She said the whole community is coming together to support innovative methods for boosting graduation, such as the hiring of the Eagle Point graduation coach.

"That's what partnership in this community is all about," Everson said. "When you have a great idea and great partners, great stuff actually happens. Something important can come from this remarkable pilot project."

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.