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Principal Mike Kleiner makes it his mission to greet every one of his Discovery High School students at the door each morning of the school year.

For students falling behind or struggling with barriers outside of school, Kleiner wants to be the “pole to their tether ball.”

“I’m staying put,” Kleiner said. “When they have that security … of a reliable, strong adult, they buy in (to school).”

Kleiner and his staff are deliberate about helping students who “stumbled out of the gate” in high school, and their efforts to make them earn diplomas are paying off in rising graduation rates in the Longview School District.

On the whole, Longview graduation rates have climbed steadily for five years and hit 88.1 percent last year, up from 81.3 percent the year earlier. It was as low as 67.3 percent in 2012.

Statewide graduation rates have remained flat, and Longview’s surpassed them last year for the first time since 2013.

Much of the credit goes to Discovery, the district’s alternative high school, founded in 2014. It sets many struggling students on track to become the first in their family to graduate from high school, Kleiner said. The school offers personalized attention and custom credit options to help them get there — and it’s paying off.

Preliminary 2018 graduation rates show Discovery sitting at 60.6 percent. Just four years ago, Discovery’s rate was only 14.3 percent.

“For an alternative high school, that’s a pretty impressive number,” Superintendent Dan Zorn said at Monday night’s school board meeting, where officials first shared the preliminary graduation rates (which are still subject to change).

Discovery High School creates a more welcoming, accommodating atmosphere for students uncomfortable in a traditional high school setting, Kleiner said.

“We had kids who didn’t know they could be successful come here and discover they could,” said Jill Diehl, the district’s career and college readiness director and Discovery’s first principal.

In some cases, the staff personalizes a student’s path by enrolling them in an alternative program, such as Lower Columbia College’s Career Education Options or a GED track. In other cases, it means connecting students with Discovery’s teachers, who work one-on-one with students.

As the principal, Kleiner said he works to minimize the amount of clerical work so staff can focus on teaching the kids. He calls this strategy “making room for miracles.”

But Kleiner said his school cannot take all the credit for the district’s rising graduation rates. He said he thinks the district’s push for literacy, especially at the early learning levels, also plays a role.

A 2015 report by the Center for Public Education says “struggling readers rarely catch up with their peers academically and are four times more likely to drop out of high school.” The report cites other studies showing a lack of reading skills in third grade is linked to failure to graduate.

This summer, the district started “Superintendent Storytime,” a social media campaign where Zorn reads children’s books aloud during a Facebook Live video. The series hopes to get kids excited about reading and remind parents that “in Longview schools, literacy is the most important thing we do,” Zorn said.

For Kleiner, literacy transcends the English classroom. He said his previous experience as a middle school teacher showed him how language skills cross over into other subjects.

“Those language skills are as important to our success in math as they are to our success in English language arts,” Kleiner said. For example, students struggle to pick up algebraic concepts like solving for variables without the adequate language skills to understand how a “x” represents a number, not a letter, he said

The rising graduation rates are something the district can be proud of, but each high school diploma the district hands out affects more than just the student who earned it, Kleiner said.

“I think what it represents is when you look ahead for the community, you’re looking at a better workforce, you’re looking at more people who are employable...This is a community benefit and a community gain,” Kleiner said.

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