Kennewick schools reach out to pull dropouts back in

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KENNEWICK -- Gustavo Barraza gave up hope of ever becoming a police officer after he failed to earn enough credits to graduate with his Southridge High classmates two years ago.

He spent much of the next year at his parents' home, without a job or a plan.

Then a year ago, two volunteers from the Kennewick School District stopped by to encourage him to finish his high school degree.

"I'm just sitting in my living room, watching TV, wondering what to do with my life, when they knocked on my door," said Barraza, now 20. "They're at my doorstep so there's no excuse not to try it."

He has earned his diploma and is studying criminal justice at Columbia Basin College. Kennewick school officials said they want to create more success stories like Barraza's.

"It impacts their lives, their families' lives, their children's lives," said Lorraine Cooper, school district spokeswoman. "Even with one (coming back), it's worth the hours we spend out there."

The "We Want You Back" campaign began last year based on Cooper's recommendation. Volunteers visit the homes of former students who are at least 18 but still young enough that they wouldn't necessarily feel out of place in a traditional or alternative high school.

Cooper said about a dozen volunteers last year talked with 10 of the 35 dropouts they identified and found. Two finished their high school credits at CBC High School Academy, which helps struggling students get to graduation. Several others are enrolled.

Now, 24 volunteers are visiting the last known addresses of 72 former students to try to convince them to return to the classroom.

"We've had quite a few volunteers from district staff step up," Cooper said.

Leonor de Maldonado, the academy's director, said there are varying reasons why students don't graduate from high school but more often than not, they are only a few classes short of a diploma.

She said many dropouts realize the importance of a high school education but are too embarrassed to return to their schools.

"It's almost criminal to think there are other students wasting away," she said. "You don't need to feel like you're rejected by the system."

Barraza admits he didn't work hard enough his freshman and sophomore years.

He desperately tried to catch up his junior and senior years but still was three credits short when graduation came around. He said he was too ashamed and discouraged to return.

But after the visit from the district volunteers, he signed up at the CBC High School Academy, taking courses in geometry, creative writing and government. He was finished by December.

Friends congratulated him on his success, but Barraza wasn't finished. He signed up for college in the spring and is working toward his dream of being a police officer.

"As soon as I was done, I figured I was already moving," he said. "I was so proud I did all this and am now a college student."

Barraza plans to call some of his own relatives and friends and convince them to return to school like he did. "They have nothing to lose; just give it a chance," he said.