San Angelo schools accused of using 'home schooling' to skew dropout rate
By NICOLE C. BRAMBILA firstname.lastname@example.org
March 20, 2005
Vanessa Martinez never thought one of her biggest obstacles to graduating high school would be her teachers.
Martinez wanted a diploma - especially after her older sister, who would have been the first in her family to graduate, was run over while walking home from a New Year's Eve party.
After her sister's death, Martinez found herself in and out of alternative school because of a litany of disciplinary issues - failure to display school ID, fighting and truancy.
That's when a Central High School teacher, she said, encouraged her to quit.
Martinez was 16 - and a mother.
''They would discourage me,'' said Martinez, now 18. ''They don't give those kids a chance. They don't see how much potential they have. ... They just throw 'em to the dogs.''
Encouraging Martinez to leave school would make sense if the goal was to rid the campus of a problem student. But as school districts are aware, the state frowns on high dropout rates.
If, however, Martinez agreed to ''transfer'' out of the San Angelo Independent School District so she could be ''home schooled,'' the school would be rid of a problem student, and the dropout rate would remain unchanged. It might even improve with the transfer of a student who was likely to drop out eventually.
Parents, social workers and municipal judges say that is exactly what is happening in San Angelo. Some students are being pressured, they charge, into ''home schooling,'' even in cases in which their parents are illiterate.
Rise in home schooling
More than 130 students left the SAISD in the 2002-03 academic year to home school. That figure had risen steadily since the 1998-99 school year, when 43 students left the district to home school.
The Texas Education Agency considers home-school students as transfers.
As the number of dropouts in the district declined in recent years, the number of students opting to home school increased,
according to data obtained in a Freedom of Information request. Of the 430 students the district lost in the 2002-03 school year, 138, or 32 percent, withdrew to home school.
The following school year, 126 students withdrew to home school.
The number of San Angelo students who left public schools to home school is about double the number in the Abilene, Ector County and Midland districts - similar-sized West Texas school systems.
To date, approximately 90 San Angelo students have withdrawn from public schools this year to home school.
SAISD officials dispute that the schools have driven the rise in home schoolers. They note that the administration has created a myriad of services - programs for migrant families, young scholars and after-school care, among them - to serve students who are at risk of dropping out, to keep them in school and to help them earn a diploma.
Marty Jonas, the district's executive director of west-side campuses, contends that parents, not the schools, initiate the move to home schooling.
''By state law, a parent does have a right to educate their children if they so choose,'' Jonas said. ''I personally have a hard time with the home schooling. Home schooling is good. There are strong home school organizations locally and statewide.
''What I'm concerned with is the parent who, to get out of the court system or who is worn down by the child, decides to go and home school.''
Jonas said she has seen many such cases, recalling an illiterate woman who couldn't sign her name on district documents, yet removed her child to home school.
''I closed my door and cried because I know that child isn't going to get an education,'' Jonas said. ''Every time I sign one of those sheets, it breaks my heart.''
Jonas blamed the increasing home-school numbers not on pressure from school officials but on ''word of mouth'' among parents of problem students wanting to avoid courts and fines for truancy.
Parents of elementary school students, not secondary school students having difficulty in public schools, typically join the San Angelo Christian Home School Association, said former association board member Becca Levesque.
The number of families in the association has not generally increased as the number of SAISD students who transfer to home schools has risen. The association's membership has fluctuated between 65 and 100 families in the past five years, Levesque said.
Dee Guerra, a Healthy Families of San Angelo support worker, backed Martinez's version of her split with the SAISD, recalling Central High officials telling Martinez they didn't want her back.
Healthy Families is a nonprofit in-home visitation program for first-time parents of newborns.
Family-support worker Ruby Harlow said everyone at Healthy Families has ''a story like'' Martinez's.
Carolyn Wiseheart, director of Healthy Families, said her agency's family-support workers have witnessed teen moms wanting to go back to school being told ''they're not a candidate for graduation.'' She estimated the agency serves a dozen home-schooled teen moms and dads - some, she said, ''taught'' by parents who are illiterate or can't speak English.
Parents such as Laura Perez, a high school dropout and single mom who could not read aloud the materials that her son's Lincoln Junior High School teachers sent home.
After years of struggling with her son, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, special education teachers gave up on him and pressured her to home school last year, Perez said. Her son was 12.
When the home-school books that Perez said administrators promised never materialized, she abandoned the idea of home schooling. For the past year, her seventh-grade son - who reads on a third-grade level, according to district documents from a year ago - has received no schooling.
''The way I felt,'' she said, ''was I didn't have a decision.''
Parents who remove their children from public schools to home school often contact a local home-school association for help picking a curriculum. As the new member coordinator for the San Angelo Christian Home School Association, Susan Clearley said she has fielded calls from distraught parents saying district officials pressured them into home schooling their children.
''These parents were panicked because they were told this is what they needed to do,'' Clearley said. ''Some felt they had no choice. They saw that they couldn't afford private school and if the school district was telling them there wasn't anything else they could do for them, they felt like there weren't any other options.''
Municipal judges Jay Daniel and Allen Gilbert, who deal with truant students and those facing disciplinary action, said such stories are all too familiar.
''I'm getting the same story you are,'' Daniel said. ''Parents tell me the school said, 'Why don't you home school?'''
In a year's time, Gilbert estimated a half-dozen parents have said district officials suggested they home school rather than drop out.
Because the municipal court is not an investigative agency, neither judge has pursued the complaints, Daniel said.
The state's 'hammer'
The rise in home-school transfer students began after the school district fell into non-compliance with the Texas Education Agency, when its Hispanic dropout rate climbed to 6.8 percent in the 1994-95 school year. The maximum acceptable rate is 6 percent.
Students are considered dropouts if they miss 30 straight days of class or, if after pre-enrolling, fail to show up.
Suzanne Marchman, a TEA spokeswoman, said dropout rates can adversely affect campus and district rates.
''That's a pretty good motivator,'' Marchman said. ''That's like having an 'F' you have to display everywhere.''
The ripple effects of a bad rating can be far reaching, Marchman said, from parents choosing to move to better-performing districts to administrators and teachers losing pay increases.
''Public scrutiny is the biggest hammer there is, and that's a good thing,'' said David Smith, executive director for the Region XV Education Service Center in San Angelo. The center is a staff-development organization that serves 43 school districts in 18 counties.
A campus that fails to comply with TEA guidelines on academic performance or the dropout rate could face on-site scrutiny, or, in extreme cases, be closed and consolidated with another campus, Smith said.
The bottom line
At the end of the day, accountability is about students such as Vanessa Martinez, whose school years were often troubled.
A district progress report indicates she was enrolled in gifted-and-talented classes in junior high school and performed well - A's and B's - when she completed her work.
Martinez also appeared - again and again - before judges in municipal court for many of the same problems that landed her in alternative school.
As a 16-year-old mother who was no longer enrolled in school, Martinez could have easily been another statistic. Under the law, Martinez was not eligible to take the exam for a General Equivalency Diploma for another year.
Healthy Families, however, petitioned a judge on her behalf for an exemption. Today Martinez is engaged to be married and planning to take classes at Howard College to become a pharmacy technician. Without support, Wiseheart said, the outcome could have been different.
Students who sit out a couple of years are not likely to go back and get their GED certificate, she said.
The way Wiseheart sees it, playing with the dropout numbers hurts students.
''Whatever pressure that the school district is under to reduce dropouts,'' she said, ''this isn't the way to do it.''