Monday, June 3, 2013

Open Hearts, Open Minds: A Glimpse into the Success of Mount Scott Learning Centers

Watch a video about MSLC
On a Tuesday morning visit to Mt. Scott Learning Centers (MSLC), there was a palpable sense of community. One of the first things I noticed - besides the bright purple fa├žade of the building - was that the administrative and dean’s offices had full-window walls, creating an open environment. As we toured the school, students approached our tour guide, MSLC Transitions Manager Joshua Mead, asking to speak with him later. In the lunchroom, students and teachers talked animatedly in small groups. Voices of teachers starting class spilled out of classroom doors left ajar. Students en route to class bustled past us with quick smiles to Mead. The hallways were lined with framed photographs documenting graduations, school events and sports teams. If I could sum up my first impression in three words it would be: energy, enthusiasm and warmth.

MSLC has become a known leader in the Portland community for providing accredited alternative education for at-risk youth. A majority of students who attend MSLC are categorized as “academic priority,” meaning they had poor attendance records, low benchmark scores on the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or were failing core courses and in danger of not graduating high school. More than 70 percent are low-income.  Yet, if you dig deeper into why these students are at-risk, it becomes clear that many different roads led to this path. For varying reasons these students were all struggling in a conventional schooling environment and needed more one-on-one attention and a more flexible approach.

An unprecedented number of students graduated from MSLC this year!
MSLC has been able to transform chronically disengaged students by establishing positive adult relationships. Class sizes are at a maximum of 20 students, allowing a richer curriculum and closer student-teacher relationships. The school’s core teachers hold weekly small group advisory sessions for students. From the time I spent there, it was clear that the staff’s dedication to their students extended far beyond programming.  Likewise, the students possess a strong loyalty to the school because they selected MSLC and are choosing to make the effort to graduate high school. This paralleled commitment fuels the staff’s desire to constantly improve the organization’s ability to serve the needs of its students.

MSLC received a $97,000 grant from United Way of the Columbia-Willamette’s 2012-13 grant cycle because MSLC’s goals for improving its school were closely aligned with United Way’s education impact areas of high school completion and students’ successful transition to continuing education. MSLC used the grant money to enhance the Transitions Program and to develop the Career Foundations class. These classes directly address the growing need to help students prepare for their transition post-graduation and that some students need personalized assistance in planning their credits for high school completion.

The Career Foundations class, an elective targeted for younger students, is designed to give students the tools, analytical skills and encouragement to plan for their future career options.  The course supplements the Transitions Program, a class designed for seniors’ transition out of high school, and gives the students a comprehensive plan of action for their future. Students conduct market research on their top career choice and backup career choice. At the end of the quarter, every student presents the research conducted on their top two career choices.

The grant also assisted in the development of intensive case management services for 25 students within the Transitions Program. The students receive support to identify credits needed for graduation and get referrals for credit retrieval. They also attend career classes, receive support in career planning and personalized mentorship. All 15 seniors in United Way’s case management program will successfully graduate and receive their diploma June 2013.

Many students of MSLC are the first in their family to consider college. Thus, another emphasis at MSLC is to increase awareness and knowledge of college. In January, the school hosted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Night for students and their families to get information and assistance in filling out FAFSA applications. Mead spearheaded this idea when he realized that many families do not have the resources to complete the complicated application; thus students were missing out on an opportunity to receive funding for post-secondary education. The event proved hugely successful with around 30 families attending. Most notably, there was a significant increase in the number of students receiving scholarships. A huge part of this can be attributed to the development of the case management program, new opportunities for career explorative classes and family outreach events such as FAFSA night. To highlight the success of such programs, all 15 case managed youth applied for FAFSA and will receive a Pell Grant and 10 of the 15 won additional scholarships.

In the past, MSLC graduated 17-19 students each year. This year, the number of students who are graduating has almost doubled to 31 students. MSLC credits a large part of this success to the support provided by the Transitions Program case management’s increased focus on ensuring that students attain the credits they need to graduate and the Career Foundations class’ emphasis on planning early for the future. These services are clearly spilling over to other students as reflected by the increased graduation rates.

“The most rewarding aspect of my job has always been watching our students graduate,” said Mead.  “I can now add that seeing my students realize college is an accessible option is another extremely rewarding part of my work. Their sense of accomplishment and pride is very moving.”  

To learn more about Mt. Scott Learning Centers, visit: http://www.mtscottlearningcenters.org/

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