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Southwest Open School shows strong academic improvement, emphasizes student culture

Southwest Open School students on the first day of school for the 2023-2024 school year. (Southwest Open School Facebook/Courtesy Photo)
Director Casey Simpson said they are now a school of choice rather than a last-chance school

Southwest Open School showed strong academic improvement in school improvement scores from the state as the school emphasizes a strong student culture and expands learning opportunities for its students.

The 2023 Preliminary Alternative Education Campuses Performance Framework showed SWOS at an Improvement rating with a score of 56.60 out of 100. This is their second year on watch, but they are approaching a performance rating, according to the metrics provided by SWOS.

AEC Improvement rates are schools at 47.0% to 59.99%, while an AEC Performance rating is 60% to 100%. SWOS is at 56.6%, an improvement of 13.65 percentage points from 2019.

The school is approaching a performance rating in academic achievement (52.2%), academic growth (50.06%) and postsecondary and workforce readiness (54.17%). They meet standards in student engagement, which is 75%.

SWOS also meets standards in evidence-based reading and writing, and is approaching standard in math, language usage and reading.

SWOS Director Casey Simpson said the school has come a long way since 2019 when they were given a priority improvement rating and were experiencing high staff turnover, including five administrators in five years.

“We were struggling in a lot of different ways,” he said. “We’ve improved drastically.”

Simpson said the school is fully staffed, one of the only schools in the district that is fully staffed, and has doubled down on promoting strong student engagement.

He also noted that the school has been growing a data-driven culture, with instructional staff meeting after school to analyze data and discuss areas to improve.

Simpson said the school has changed drastically from its past distinction. Now, a little over 72% of SWOS’s students come to the school directly out of middle school.

“In the past, it’s been viewed as a last-chance school,” he said. “It’s not a last-chance school. It’s a school of choice.”

Focusing on student goals and growing a positive student culture on campus has been a driving force in this change.

“Most students and families mention that they want a small school, big family environment,” Simpson said.

In entrance interviews, Simpson said he makes it clear to students and families that SWOS staff wants to help the student accomplish their goals in school and in life, but the student has to take a proactive effort in their education.

“I tell them our goal is to help you achieve your dreams, but I can’t make any students do any work. I don’t want to drag anyone kicking and screaming through our educational program. I want the students and families to take a leadership role in that,” he said.

This approach has helped the school not only improve their student engagement, but also improve their attendance. Currently, Simpson said their attendance is 80%, and the returning student rate was over 70% last school year.

“The vast majority of students who come to SWOS say it’s the best school experience they’ve ever had,” he said.

Simpson said that instead of going the truancy route to address attendance, they are working to build a relationship with parents and learning how they can help parents get their children to class.

“Just asking the parents how we can support them seems to be our logical first step for improving that relationship and ultimately improving attendance,” he said.

“We talk a lot about accountability is love,” he continued. “Holding someone accountable is basically giving the facts, like ‘Hey, this is what we’re seeing and we want to help you.’”

Giving students and parents an active role in their education has been pivotal in growing student engagement and attendance, according to Simpson.

“That student leadership component helps develop student agency and engagement with their own future,” he said. “I think having students develop that agency gives them a sense of control, which increases engagement because school isn’t being done to them. They’re choosing their own path.”

Goals for SWOS include growing project-based learning and growing technical education and postsecondary readiness.

Simpson pointed out that in the past, many SWOS students would drop out of school because they needed a job. To help combat this, the school developed internship and apprenticeship programs where students can continue their education while participating in an internship with a local business.

Many of these internships have turned into jobs once the student successfully graduated. The program is in its early stages, but already has five successful internships with local businesses that have resulted in jobs.

SWOS has three pathways for diplomas. They offer a standard high school diploma, an academic diploma for those wanting to pursue secondary education and a technical diploma for students who hope to graduate with skills to launch a career by spending time in the field learning what kind of career they want to start.

Simpson said SWOS is a school where students are “recognized as unique” and where “parents are kept in the loop in real time” about how their students are performing in school.

“Parents are encouraged to engage with the staff to help accomplish their students’ hopes and dreams. SWOS is the place to do that,” he said. “And the students are here because they want to be here.”

A Facebook post from a community member also highlighted the culture at SWOS.

“Every morning as I go to work, I see so many students walking, skateboarding or biking to school at SWOS because they WANT to go there. That is THEIR place. SWOS has built a culture of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance and kindness with what some people would consider a very challenging group of students. Amazing work!! SWOS you deserve much more credit for making this community a better place than what you receive!! Dragon hearts come from dragon leaders! Absolutely amazing!!!” the post said.

Some new changes to the SWOS campus include a bike shop program that provides a bike technician certification upon completion and an almost-finished science building that will include a test kitchen for culinary arts and more. Simpson also said the school takes students on trips around the country to “provide authentic learning opportunities for students.”

“The students are proud, the staff are proud of the accomplishments,” he said.