Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Seeking solutions to dropout crisis [in California]

July 12, 2007

Seeking solutions to dropout crisis
By Russell W. Rumberger / The Sacramento Bee/ Thursday, July 12, 2007

Figures released by the Department of Education last month show California's high school graduation rate in 2006 was the lowest in 10 years. The estimated 170,000 students who failed to graduate from the 2006 class will cost the state $46 billion in lost earnings and $2 billion in lost state taxes. Clearly the state must act to address its growing dropout crisis.

To do so, we first need to understand the causes of this crisis. The sharp decline in the graduation rate from 2005 to 2006, which produced an estimated 20,000 additional dropouts, was most likely due to the requirement that students had to pass the California High School Exit Exam in order to receive a diploma. While the merits of this exam continue to be debated, it nonetheless represents an additional hurdle for California's public high school students.

But the roots of California's dropout crisis form well before students enter ninth grade. In fact, they begin before students enter kindergarten.

The high proportion of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds, the large rates of childhood poverty and the lower participation rates in quality preschools mean that many students in California begin school at a considerable disadvantage. For instance, socioeconomically disadvantaged students begin kindergarten about 3 1/2 months behind middle class students in math, and 2 1/2 months behind in reading. Low achievement in elementary school is an early predictor of dropping out in high school.

Early behavior problems and negative attitudes toward school also predict dropping out. At the end of fifth grade, one in five California students shows low perceived ability and interest in math, or problems with social behavior, such as fighting or arguing with other students. And one in 11 students is below grade level, one of the strongest predictors of dropping out.
Although existing research reveals some of the factors that may explain California's high dropout rate, additional research is needed. That is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation have joined together to support the California Dropout Research Project ( The project will synthesize existing research and undertake new research to inform policymakers and the larger public about the nature of -- and potential solutions to -- the dropout problem in California.

The project has commissioned 15 research studies that are examining the causes, costs and potential solutions to the state's dropout crisis. It has also established a policy committee comprised of state legislators, researchers and educators who will use this research to draft a policy agenda to address this critical educational problem.

Although the committee will not release its final report until January, two important issues have already been identified. One concerns the need for a better student data system. The state is now creating a longitudinal student data system that can be used to track students' progress through school. But the existing system will not be sufficient to address the dropout problem without tracking students' mobility in and out of the public system during elementary and secondary school, as well as their educational and labor market experiences after leaving high school.

The other issue concerns how to solve the problem. A frequent policy response to any educational problem is to create a targeted categorical program to address it. But as the recent Stanford-led school finance study showed, California suffers from too many categorical programs that limit the flexibility of schools to effectively address the needs of their students. The solution to California's dropout crisis must involve more than a new categorical program, and it must focus on the preschool, elementary and middle school levels as well as high schools.

Solving California's dropout crisis is a formidable challenge that will require a long-term, comprehensive strategy to not only improve the state's public schools, but to strengthen the other social institutions that contribute to student educational success.


Here are my previous columns on this this issue. My June 17th column cites Rumberger's research.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel, July 8, 2007

Let's keep better track of high school dropouts
By Luis A. Alejo

I was pleased to see some response by school administrators and community members regarding the high numbers of students disappearing from my alma mater, Watsonville High School. It is often the issue that so many like to ignore or sweep under the rug.

But also troubling is the denial of the very serious nature of the crisis by Watsonville High Principal Murry Schekman in his recent column. That is why there continues to be much inaction; administration tries to console the public by saying the problem is really not that bad or the costs are not as high as I project.

In my previous column, I intentionally referred to disappearance rates instead of dropout rates, because the current dropout data is completely flawed. For instance, the dropout data for WHS states that there was a zero percent dropout rate for the class of 2004 when in fact 48.9 percent disappeared and never graduated from WHS.

In addition, the PVUSD does not know what has happened to all these students who have disappeared from Watsonville High. Even Schekman had to contact a couple of fellow principals to know how many students went to those schools or graduated. That's a major part of the problem. The PVUSD does not track students to know exactly where they end up.

For instance, Schekman cites 55 students who graduated from New School and about another 288 from Renaissance High in an attempt to account for some of the 2,290 students who did not graduate from Watsonville High from 2001 through 2006. But what happened to the other 1,947 students who are unaccounted for?

Moreover, there seems to be an equally serious problem at those other schools. For instance, statistics from the California Department of Education show that out of all 111 seniors who enrolled at New School Alternative Program between 2001 through 2006, only 45 graduated, not 55. And what happened to those other 66 students, or 60 percent, who did not graduate from that school?

Instead of denying the severity of the crisis, I would like to see more being done at the school. Here are some other strategies that could help.

Longitudinal student tracking system: The PVUSD should create a pilot longitudinal student computer tracking system that will significantly help the district know what is happening to students who disappear. About 270 school districts have already piloted similar tracking programs with a single life-time school identification number. Besides knowing what is occurring with WHS students, the tracking system should be developed to allow the various student support programs and services to better communicate and know what each is doing for a particular student.

Increase guidance counselors: In 2004, there was only one counselor for about every 600 students at Watsonville High. This is a very limited number of guidance counselors to assist students with course selection, the A-G college requirements, personal issues, or college applications, among many other vital services. The American School Counselor Association recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1:250 in order to achieve maximum program effectiveness. An extremely high number of WHS students are not fulfilling the A-G college requirements and there are hundreds of students who begin 12th grade but are not graduating. In all six years, there were a total of 838 high-school seniors who began 12th grade at WHS but did not graduate.

Replicate successful models: The PVUSD must look to successful models to replicate in Watsonville. One model to look into is San Jose Downtown College Prep, which targets low-achieving urban students. A significant number of its students are also Latino, economically disadvantaged and are English learners. Their primary goal is to ensure that "at-risk" students are able to matriculate into four-year universities. Its first graduating class in 2004 resulted in 94 percent of them attending universities.

More intervention programs in early years: More alternative and intervention programs must be created for the middle and elementary students to help prevent students from dropping out once they enter high school. In addition, the district should work to ensure that as many children as possible enroll in quality pre-school programs.

One-stop center for student services: There are many different types of student service programs in the PVUSD. However, there is almost no coordination between all these services. One possible way to address this problem is to house all these student services in one building in order to create a one-stop student services center that will allow for coordination among the different programs and a comprehensive case management approach to serving students.

District-wide school improvement plan: There continues to be no district-wide school-improvement strategy despite the fact that almost all schools in Watsonville are in program-improvement status under the No Child Left Behind Act. There are only piecemeal reforms that are not part of any larger comprehensive plan that has the buy-in and support from teachers, parents, students and community members.

Of course, there are many other strategies and interventions that should be considered. Dealing with the serious crisis at Watsonville High School will require a comprehensive, multi-strategy approach, and efforts must be ongoing throughout the next several years as a community-wide effort.

Luis A. Alejo is a local public interest attorney and the director of the Student Empowerment Project.

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The Santa Cruz Sentinel, June 17, 2007


Dropout crisis continues in Watsonville
By Luis Angel Alejo

Last week, high school graduation ceremonies took place throughout the Pajaro Valley, where students celebrated with classmates, family and friends.

But a close look at the most recent graduation statistics of Watsonville High School reveals an ever-worsening dropout crisis where 50 percent of all students who enter as freshmen do not graduate by senior year. Out of all the public high schools in Santa Cruz County, Watsonville High has the lowest graduation rates and the highest disappearance rates.

The current graduation and dropout data used statewide, based on the National Center for Education Statistics NCES formula, is completely flawed as reported by the Harvard Civil Rights Project and the Education Trust. The inaccurate NCES data only reports an 8.8 percent dropout rate for the Watsonville High School class of 2006. However, when the more accurate Cumulative Promotion Index CPI is used to longitudinally track students starting in ninth grade, actually 49.1 percent disappeared and never graduated by 12th grade.

Most parents are unaware of how many students are disappearing from the educational pipeline. The longitudinal data for six cohorts of students at Watsonville High, 2001 through 2006, shows an alarming 2,290 students disappeared and did not graduate by the 12th grade.

The PVUSD has no way of knowing what has happened to these students since there is no system to track where these students have gone. The graduation rates of our students are the ultimate measure of high school accountability and the numbers of Watsonville High continue to be dismal.

The costs

When students fail to graduate from high school, there are profound social and economic consequences on their lives and those of their future children. Both the Harvard Civil Rights Project and Education Trust reported that students who drop out face higher unemployment rates, earn lower wages, have poorer health and are more likely to be incarcerated or rely on public assistance.

The U.S. Census estimates that students who drop out will earn $270,000 less than a high school graduate over their lifetime. In addition, young adult Latinos who finish high school earn 36 percent more than those who drop out according to a 2002 Census Bureau report. There are also huge societal costs by students who are ill-prepared to enter the work force and participate in civic life. For our state, there is higher unemployment, increased crime and billions of dollars in lost tax revenue.

According to renowned education researcher Russell Rumberger of UC Santa Barbara, the 66,657 students who dropped out statewide from California public schools in 2002-03 will cost the state $14 million in lost wages over their lifetimes and add 1,225 inmates to our state's prisons at a cost of $73 million.

Undoubtedly, our children, community and society suffer tremendously. Increasing the numbers of students who graduate reduces crime and increases the productivity of students throughout their life time.

Millions still being lost

In addition, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District continues to lose millions of dollars in lost revenue each year as a result of students disappearing from the educational pipeline. For each student who is not in school, PVUSD loses at least $5,216 in average daily attendance funding in base-limit revenue each year. When hundreds of students in a cohort are tracked over four high school years, the amount in lost revenue is enormous.

For the Watsonville High School class of 2006 alone, PVUSD lost a potential of more than $3 million as a result of 439 students disappearing over four years. The PVUSD would make substantial financial gains by keeping local students in school and establishing strategies and interventions that will retain and bring students back into the PVUSD.

Problem will get worse
This serious crisis will only be exacerbated with the new policy approved in January by the current PVUSD board of trustees that prohibits students from participating in graduation ceremonies if they have not passed the California High School Exit Exam, despite completing all other graduation requirements.

The majority of students at Watsonville High who have yet to pass the exam are English-language learners. These students face additional barriers and are being severely punished for not passing a single test. It is devastating to deny them the day that all high school students look forward to and is only causing more to drop out.

The recent report by expert Norm Gold on English learners in the PVUSD demonstrated that the district has been failing to provide its EL students with a quality education and yet, the board of trustees found it acceptable to take harsh, punitive action against these students at the end of high school for its own abysmal failings.

The PVUSD board should change its graduation policy to allow students who earn a "certificate of completion" to participate in the graduation ceremonies as were permitted before. This proposal would be a strong incentive to keep students from dropping out, complete all their other graduation requirements, and to take the exit exam one last time. Last year, many PVUSD students did just that by later passing the exam without having lost out on their big day.

The bottom line is that much more must be done for los desaparecidos, those students who disappear from the education pipeline. However, very little has been done by the PVUSD to address this crisis despite the fact that this issue was brought to its attention in 2005 along with possible ways to address the problem.

Luis A. Alejo is a local public interest attorney and the director of the Student Empowerment Project.

Watsonville High School
9th 10th 11th 12th Graduated Disappeared

grade grade grade grade
Class of 2006 895 867 751 637 456 (50.9%) 439 (49.1%)
Class of 2005 837 796 706 594 485 (57.9%) 352 (42.1%)
Class of 2004 946 906 772 643 483 (51.1%) 463 (48.9%)
Class of 2003 994 954 834 702 532 (53.5%) 462 (46.5%)
Class of 2002 795 792 704 610 467 (58.7%) 328 (41.3%)
Class of 2001 783 733 668 612 537 (68.6%) 246 (31.4%)
SOURCE: California Department of Education

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