A small private, tuition-free middle school in downtown Tucson is challenging Arizona’s graduation rates.
According to the Arizona Department of Education’s most recent annual state report card, 75 percent of students in the state receive a high school diploma within four years. Graduation rates for low-income students hover at an even lower 70 percent.
Imago Dei is an Episcopal middle school filled with students who are low-income, Hispanic, African-American or refugees. It has been operating since 2005, and all of its students who have gone on to high school have graduated or passed the General Educational Development test (G.E.D.).
The model is simple — more hours, more days and more attention to the students’ needs. The school teaches only grades five to eight and accepts 80 children per year.
“We are not just trying to pump out ‘A’ students,” said Cameron Taylor, who directs the school’s graduate support and enrichment program. “We are trying to help these kids achieve everything they can.”
Imago Dei’s calendar is intense. Students attend school for 10 hours a day, six days a week and 11 months a year. The program has helped families like the Raymonds see a path out of poverty.
Markie Raymond, 15, has had a tough life: His father went to prison for abusing and shooting his mother. He attended a public elementary school and transferred to Imago Dei in 2011.
Before attending Imago Dei, Markie said, he was shy, lacked self-confidence and felt constrained by strict public school rules. But at Imago Dei, he said, he felt bolstered by the support he received and now feels more secure. “It is small, and you get to know everyone, and you grow this relationship with everyone,” Markie said. “You start up as friends and then it’s like a small family.”
Imago Dei is supported mostly by private donors, Mr. Taylor said. It also receives funding through Arizona’s tax credit program called School Tax Credits for Individuals, which allows single individuals to donate up to $500, or $1,000 for married couples, to fund private schools.
Although the school aims to try to end poverty for some families, there is still more to do in Arizona to end that cycle.
“There is less and less money put in education and at some point the underinvestment doesn’t produce the level of workers it needs so students can get a good job,” said H.T. Sánchez, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, the largest district in southern Arizona.
Mr. Taylor said that 85 percent of the school’s graduates are now pursuing college degrees. Its graduate support program tracks alumni and provides support for students throughout their educational journey after Imago Dei.
“The graduate support program is getting them to understand long-term thinking, career goals and life goals and how to go about making that happen,” Mr. Taylor said.