Saturday, November 10, 2007

RGV schools labeled ‘dropout factories’

Here's another response to the article: "1 in 10 Schools Are 'Dropout Factories'" Quite different in response than the previous post. -Patricia

Ryan Holeywell and Elizabeth Pierson Hernandez
November 1, 2007 - 10:30PM

McALLEN — Nearly two dozen Rio Grande Valley high schools were labeled “dropout factories” by a national study citing them for having substantially fewer seniors enrolled than freshmen — considered by some to be a telltale sign of dropout problems.

The study, released earlier this week, was commissioned by The Associated Press and conducted by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools.

It analyzed “promotion power” — a comparison of the size of a school’s freshmen class to its senior class three years later. The study’s author said he understood the term “dropout factory” might sound strong, but noted the problem is serious.

The promotion power statistic is a way to approximate how many freshmen left the school by their senior years. Schools were labeled “dropout factories” if, over three years, the size of the senior class averaged 60 percent or less of the freshman class from three years earlier.

Sofia Valdez, an education professor at the University of Texas-Pan American and member of Grupo Poder, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo schools watchdog organization, said the study underscores an issue of which most educators are well aware.

“It’s a complex problem with many stakeholders,” Valdez said. “It’s not just the parents. It’s not just the schools. It’s not just the community.”


The Texas Education Agency and some local school districts, however, said the study’s figures don’t tell the whole story.

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, TEA’s director of communications, acknowledges that Texas, with a graduation rate of just 61 percent, does have a problem with students dropping out of school. Almost 18 percent of the state’s 1,040 high schools were tagged with the “dropout factory” designation in the Johns Hopkins study.

But Ratcliffe said the numbers don’t take into account Texas students’ high mobility rate. About 17 to 19 percent of students are considered transient, meaning they transfer to another school system within the state or out of state, she said.

Some Valley school officials said the report also contradicts feedback they have received from state and federal education officials who study more precise data than the Johns Hopkins report did.

Harlingen schools Superintendent Linda Wade said the report is misleading because it does not track individual students, unlike data the district sends to the state. Harlingen High School and Harlingen High School South were both named in the report.

The most recent data Wade has shows more than 88 percent of students either finished in four years or continued at the district to pursue a degree after four years, she said.

“It gives a false image to the public of what’s going on in our schools, and it’s disheartening to those of us who work in the schools,” she said.

McAllen Superintendent Yolanda Chapa agreed.

“It makes it seem as though our primary function is producing dropouts. We have many outstanding students who go through our system; they graduate and go on to greater things.”

However, she said the district realizes there is a problem and is working on increase its graduation rate.

“We have implemented many programs designed to curb our dropout population,” she said.

'Kind of unfair'

All five Brownsville high schools made the list.

Raul Vasquez, administrator for assessment, research and evaluation at the district, said district officials have figured a more precise drop-out rate that is closer to 14 percent.

On Thursday, Vasquez said he had not looked at the study. But that when district officials figure their drop-out rate, they consider who moves, finishes high school elsewhere, even who dies before graduating — all factors the Johns Hopkins study didn’t consider.

Mary Maushard, a spokeswoman for the center that conducted the study, said that argument doesn’t necessarily explain the problem with dropouts in the Valley, especially since the area is rapidly growing.

Craig Verley, a spokesman for the Mission school district, of which Veterans Memorial High School was ranked on the list, noted the Valley is home to a significant migrant laborer population. He reiterated that the study was “kind of unfair” since it didn’t examine why students left school.

He said the district focuses on enrolling dropouts at the beginning of the school year and is now focusing on improving the teacher-to-student ratio in ninth grade, which is critical to a student’s success.

PSJA Superintendent Daniel King said comparing enrollment figures of freshmen to seniors isn’t a perfect way to study dropouts, largely because of a statistical anomaly that artificially inflates the size of a freshman class. Students who enter high school and don’t advance are classified as freshmen, regardless of their age.

But he said he didn’t want to make excuses, either.

“I think we have to admit we have a problem,” King said, noting his district has created programs to try to re-enroll dropouts through partnership programs with South Texas College.

Simply a guideline

Officials at South Texas Independent School District — the state’s only all-magnet school district and widely respected for its students’ academic performance — took issue with the inclusion of two of their high schools on the list.

“They used a very simplistic methodology,” said Andi Atkinson, the district’s marketing specialist.

The district’s Science Academy of South Texas (Sci Tech) and South Texas Business, Education & Technology Academy (BETA) were listed in the university’s report. Figures Atkinson provided showed most of the losses were due to students returning to home districts, moving or entering private school.

Maushard, of Johns Hopkins, said the study strictly focused on enrollment figures because, unlike graduation rates, all districts compile those figures in the same consistent manner.

The study identified specific schools so policymakers and administrators would know where to focus their efforts, she said.
Monitor Staff Writer Jennifer L. Berghom contributed to this report.
Ryan Holeywell covers PSJA and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4446.

Elizabeth Pierson Hernandez covers the state capital for Valley Freedom Newspapers. She is based in Austin and can be reached at (512) 323-0622.

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