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Peer power

Graduation coach Robert Joe credits the power of peer pressure with pushing dozens of freshmen with failing grades to pass their classes in the last few weeks of school.

As part of a pilot project that started in April, Joe has been working with 74 freshmen who failed one or more classes in the first semester at Eagle Point High School. Students who fall behind as freshmen have a much harder time earning enough credits to graduate from high school on time — or ever.

By the end of May, 20 of the 74 students had turned their grades around and were passing all their classes in the second semester.

Joe and the students were closing in on a goal to have 21 of the failing freshmen pass all their classes.

Then, in the last few weeks of school, a surging tide of freshmen pushed their grades up, with 52 passing all their classes with C grades or better.

All spring, Joe did everything from getting students to turn in missing assignments to sitting in on their classes to stop them from goofing off. But he said peer pressure helped motivate the holdouts to improve their grades in the final weeks.

"I think part of it was that success breeds success," he said. "Earlier, I was asked what challenges I faced. There was not enough peer support and students supporting each other. But by the end of the year, there was less and less of me pushing the kids and more of peers pushing each other. They were like, 'I brought my grades up and now I'm not going to summer school. There's no reason you should be going to summer school, either.' "

Although 22 of the freshmen didn't pass all their classes by the end of school, 86 percent of those students were able to raise one or more of their failing grades, Joe said. 

The entire freshmen class of 267 kids ended up having the fewest failing students — beating out the sophomores, juniors and seniors, he said.

The graduation coach pilot project was funded with a $25,000 grant from AllCare Health, which coordinates physical, mental and dental health care for thousands of Jackson County residents on the Oregon Health Plan. AllCare Health and Jackson Care Connect, the other local coordinated care organization, fund a variety of innovative projects that indirectly improve people's health and reduce future costs.

Dropping out of high school is as deadly as smoking, according to research published in 2015 that adds to a growing body of evidence that education improves health.

People with more education tend to live longer, while those with less schooling are more likely to be overweight, get less physical activity and engage in risky behavior like smoking, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The freshmen at Eagle Point High School were targeted as part of a larger effort called the Big Idea project, spearheaded by the United Way of Jackson County. Community partners are pushing for a 100 percent graduation rate for students who will graduate in 2020 from the Eagle Point, Medford and Three Rivers school districts.

Achieving the goal is a tall order — especially because Oregon traditionally ranks among the worst states when it comes to graduation rates.

"What the pilot project showed was we can have phenomenal results with students who are struggling," said United Way Executive Director Dee Anne Everson. "With kids who are failing, having a caring adult can have a huge impact."

Everson said United Way promotes graduation because people who drop out of high school have higher rates of poverty, unemployment and reliance on services provided by the government and social services agencies.

She said while using a graduation coach is a new concept in the Rogue Valley, graduation coaches have proven successful in other parts of the nation.

Everson and school district officials said they are hopeful they can secure funding to continue the graduation coach project.

It would be ideal for Joe to keep working with this year's freshmen as they become sophomores, juniors and seniors, said Phil Ortega, attendance and safe schools coordinator for Eagle Point School District.

If that can happen, this year's freshmen could achieve the best graduation rate in Eagle Point High School history in 2020, Ortega said.

— 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, worked with freshman Gabriell Mercado to bring up his grades. By the end of the term, 52 of 74 struggling freshmen had passed all their classes. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]