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Graduation coach targets freshmen with failing grades

Freshman Gabriell Mercado was failing a class at Eagle Point High School because of a missing T-shirt.

"I fell behind in P.E. because my shirt got stolen and I wouldn't go to class. I didn't want to ask for loaners because other kids wore them, and I didn't want to tell my parents," Mercado said.

He finally told his parents about the shirt, and they gave him $10 to buy a replacement.

"I said, 'I need to stop being so cheap and pay for it,' " Mercado said.

While the reason for his failing grade might seem trivial, getting F grades as a freshman can have a profound impact on a student's ability to graduate on time. Students fall behind in earning the credits they need to graduate and sometimes give up on high school altogether.

"Research shows that freshmen with four or more Fs by the end of their first year are 40 percent less likely to complete high school," said Eagle Point School District Superintendent Cynda Rickert.

Eagle Point High School decided early intervention was critical.

Using a $25,000 grant from AllCare Health, the school hired graduation coach Robert Joe to work intensively with freshmen with failing grades from April to the end of school in early June. The grant provides $20,000 for his salary, plus $5,000 for incentives such as pizza and Dutch Bros. gift cards for students who do well. 

Of the 267 freshmen at the school, 74 were failing one or more classes at the end of their first semester.

"We put together an ambitious goal to have 21 less kids failing at the end of the second semester compared to the first," said Phil Ortega, attendance and safe schools coordinator for the district. "If we meet that goal, we'll sustain the position."

With a few weeks still to go, 20 of the 74 failing students are now passing all their classes. Joe continues to push more students to join the ranks of those who have turned their grades around.

"My job is essentially being their biggest cheerleader," Joe said. "I tell them, 'I can be your best friend or your worst nightmare.' "

He said health, science and math account for most of the failing grades, trailed by language arts.

Mercado said he was failing three classes during the first semester — P.E., science and language arts. He started high school without much confidence in his ability to succeed, plus a penchant for goofing off and losing his belongings.

"My older brother never graduated and got his GED. My second brother was late graduating," he said. "I thought if my brothers couldn't do it, I couldn't do it. I didn't really pay attention in class. I used to think, 'Whatever happens, happens.' "

But Joe started tracking his progress and watching his every move — even helping him find his missing cellphone by calling it so it would ring. Mercado's grades are going up, and he's thinking more about his future.

"Mr. Joe wants the best for us," Mercado said. "My parents care about my grades, but don't check that much. With Mr. Joe, he wants the best for me. I want to go to college after high school, and before, I didn't want to go to college."

Joe pushes students to hand in their homework, make up missing assignments, learn basic study habits and, when the option is available, retake tests. He's noticed if students miss one assignment, some get discouraged about falling behind and stop doing their work altogether.

"I've got to reverse that and bring kids back to reality," he said.

Joe has an approach that is a mix of caring counselor, drill sergeant and sports coach — with a cool factor most parents can only envy. As a first-generation college graduate himself, he understands the perspective of many of the students.

Freshman Santos Godines had one F for the first semester. Joe has sat in on his classes to make sure he stays on track.

"I wouldn't really pay attention, and I wouldn't care — and I would goof off with my friends in class," Godines said. "Now I pay attention more. He'd always be on my butt about it."

Godines added, "A lot of kids feel like no one cares if we do good. Now we get good grades for Mr. Joe. My mom does check on my grades. She'll take my phone away, but I can live without my phone. I told her she could have my phone. But there's no option with Mr. Joe. I do what he tells me to do, and I don't question it."

Godines said he used to think it was fine to get C grades, since at least that was passing.

"Mr. Joe said, 'I want all Bs from you. The next step is all As,'" said Godines, who is earning As and Bs in his second semester.

Godines said making the transition from middle school — where kids got more guidance and support — to high school has been challenging. With Joe's help, he's learned to be more independent and to have more internal motivation to succeed.

"I used to say I wanted to go to college to make my mom proud," Godines said. "Mr. Joe told me to do it for my own good. Studying to get into a career that I like will make me happier."

While Joe's job is to focus on struggling freshmen, he's also helping students who are passing, but not reaching their full potential.

Shayna Merck earned all Bs in the first semester, but now has all As except for a single B. She confessed she was also prone to goofing off in class. Motivated by a desire not to disappoint Joe, she said she wants to earn top grades throughout high school.

"If I keep going for four years, I'm going to get a full-ride scholarship — no doubt," she said. "I always wanted to go to college. Now I'm setting myself up for it."

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

Robert Joe, Eagle Point High School graduation coach, is working with freshman Gabriell Mercado to bring up his grades. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]