At a time when Arizona's high dropout rate is making headlines, the staff at Payson High School believes it has a formula that will keep the school's rate well below the state and county averages.
A recent study by the Arizona Department of Education shows the high school dropout rate for 2000-2001 was 9.8 percent. While Gila County had the second highest rate in the state at 12.3 percent, the dropout rate at PHS was only 7.3 percent.
As might be expected, large urban and poorer economic areas have some of the highest rates. But PHS Principal Phil Gille says a unique philosophy at his school is helping to keep the dropout rate low.
"We believe there is a slot for every kid here at PHS," said Gille. "Whatever he wants to do, there's a place here where he can succeed."
The PHS effort begins in the classroom, where special courses have been created to help students who are not going to college succeed academically.
"For students who fall behind in English, for example, we offer two additional classes writing and reading to help them with their deficiencies," said Gille. "And now they can take the extra classes from the same teacher they have for English. She knows their deficiencies better than anyone."
Special math classes offered at PHS include a resource introductory algebra class that has no homework and two applied math classes that include a lot of hands-on experiences. In science, non-college bound students take a life science course that also features a hands-on format and little homework.
Far from being a cop-out, courses with little or no homework can help keep potential dropouts in school.
"A lot of the at-risk students who attend PHS have full time jobs," said Assistant Principal Dan Maher. "That's why they're at-risk. So if they can attend some classes that don't put a lot of pressure on them after school, they are more likely to succeed."
"What we're trying to do is get them working for six hours a day in school," said Gille. "If we can get that, we can do a lot with them."
Outside of the academic areas, many classes are also offered at PHS that give potential dropouts a reason to come to school. They include active drama and music programs, a very popular agriculture program, weights and other physical education classes that give non-athletes a chance to be involved, and a host of vocational programs and classes.
"We have twice to three times as many fine arts and voc-ed programs as other schools our size," said Gille. "We have nine vocational teachers. When I was at Arcadia High School in Scottsdale we had one."
The key, Gille believes, is making sure there is something for everyone at PHS.
"What keeps kids in school is not being anonymous," he said. "If a kid can attend a vocational autos class, that can be enough for him to come to school every day."
In some classrooms, students can follow individualized programs that allow them to proceed at their own pace while staying with their classmates.
What happens outside the classroom can be as important as what happens inside. In fact, studies show that the highest correlation to success in high school is not a student's grade point average, but the degree to which he or she is involved in extracurricular activities.
"Our whole philosophy is to get kids involved," said Assistant Principal Dave Bradley. "Kids get more out of being here than hanging out downtown somewhere."
In addition, Gille himself runs a lunchtime intramural basketball program that is so popular students have to be turned away.
"It's been going on for 10 years, and we run it by seniority rather than ability," he said. "That way it isn't just the athlete who gets to participate."
Besides offering a sense of belonging to the school, Bradley believes extracurricular activities are an important part of the learning process. Bradley estimates more than half of the students who attend PHS get involved in one or more extracurricular activities.
"We have a total of 940 students, and easily 400 or 500 are involved in activities," he said.
While the three principals feel good about what PHS offers, they're always looking at ways to get better.
"Even if you have one dropout that's too many and you worry about it," Gille said.