Monday, October 01, 2007

Not Adding Up: Districts working to keep kids in class through graduation

Daniel Perry / The Monitor
September 19, 2007 - 12:35AM

McALLEN — Groups of eager freshmen looked around at their new surroundings during Mustang Camp just before classes started at McAllen Memorial High School.

The senior-led camp was a chance for the new high school students to learn how to find their way around campus, about organizations and sports and to hear from faculty what is expected of them, both in behavior and academics.

But out of about 700 freshmen who officially arrived on campus Aug. 26, less than 500 probably will get their diplomas in May 2012.

It is not a problem unique to McAllen Memorial High School.

According to a Monitor survey of graduation rates since 2000, more than 75,500 freshmen entered but less than 41,000 students graduated Hidalgo and Starr counties schools four years later.

Nor is this a situation confined to the Rio Grande Valley.

A 2005 Southern Regional Education Board report indicates lower senior populations than freshmen are common on a state and national scale.

It is a problem that impacts everyone.

American adults with some high school education only make an average of $23,600 a year, and those who graduate from high school make an annual average of $31,700, according to the regional education board.

“Anytime you have kids dropping out, that’s a concern; whether it’s one kid, or a dozen kids or whatever on that student,” Mission schools spokesman Craig Verley said.

“If they don’t come back and finish high school, they are hurting their futures in a lot of ways.”

Dropping out

Texas had 51,841 out of more than 2 million students in grades seven to 12 whom dropped out during the 2005-06 school year, according to numbers the Texas Education Agency released in August — numbers the agency gets from the school districts themselves.

“We are losing kids — I’m not going to deny that,” said Janice Wiley, a former Mercedes school district superintendent and now the Region One Education Service Center’s deputy director for instructional support in Edinburg.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as we have ‘x’ amount of freshmen and ‘x’ amount of seniors. A lot of our kids do not graduate in four years — they stay for five or six years.”

But that means those students who did not graduate this year will graduate next year — making up for the next year’s students who did not walk.

Wiley admitted it is difficult to have the same number of students enter as freshmen and graduate four years later because some transfer out, some drop out, some fail classes and so on.

Rachel Arcaute, the McAllen school district’s administrator liaison for higher education and dual enrollment, said students who transferred out of the district but did not let campus officials know where to send their transcripts must be counted as dropouts if they cannot be tracked down.

The numbers the school loses to transfers is offset by the numbers the school gains.

“As we lose some out the door, we gain some,” she said. “It’s kind of a wash, somewhat.”

Richard said school districts that are serious about getting more students graduating should boost work in programs geared toward students needing help, which would increase graduation rates and lower dropout rates. But he said districts should not sacrifice academic rigor just to get more students out their high school doors with diplomas.

Arcaute said senior graduation numbers can even be deceiving, because some graduate in three years or did not meet all TAKS requirements and must pass to get an official diploma at a later time.

The regional education board uses the National Center for Education Statistics’ graduation rate percentages. Texas’ rate, according to the center’s most recent information released in 2004, was at 77 percent while the national average was 75 percent. While the state rate is higher, Richard said it still means one in four Texas students are not graduating from high school.

“Under No Child Left Behind, state accountability systems under the law have to meet annual test score targets, but the required improvements for graduation rates often are minimal,” he said.

Key year

According to the TEA, most dropouts left in their senior year, presumably after they turned 18, but educators say freshman year is most difficult for students.

There is an “academic bottleneck” because some ninth-graders do not get all the required credits to move on to the next grade.

The regional education board attributes this to freshmen who are unprepared for high school work; higher teacher-to-student ratios than in middle and elementary schools; and less highly qualified teachers at those levels.

The stuck students eventually leave school, though the state requires class attendance if they are 18 and younger or to get extra help beyond what a regular classroom offers in alternative or open campuses, or online courses. Students’ attendance and academic results at alternative campuses are typically used in statistics for their home campuses.

“That’s pretty traditional across the state and nation,” Wiley said.

Alan Richard, the education board’s communications director in Atlanta, called the abundance of freshmen the “ninth-grade bulge.” He said there are 16-, 17- and 18-year-old freshmen who keep getting stuck in the academic circle at many campuses.

The critical ninth-grade year is also a tough one for teachers, who struggle with how to teach students transitioning from junior high and middle school, said Gina Johnson, who teaches ninth-grade geography at McAllen Memorial.

“It is a big transition to be more responsible,” Johnson said.

“They have more responsibility and it’s more up to them. We can only do so much. A lot of it has to come from parents.”

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