Rising Dropout Rate Raises Concerns

By Beacon Staff

Mirroring several of its neighbors in northwest Montana, Flathead County has one of the highest yearly dropout rates in the state. According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, 6.2 percent of high school students in the county dropped out during the 2007-2008 school year. This ranks Flathead County in the bottom 12 of Montana’s 56 counties.

Around the country, there is growing concern over high school retention rates. An estimated 1.3 million students drop out of high school each year. A decade ago, this group could expect to earn a meager, though livable wage. The recent recession, however, twined with an increased unemployment pool, has left many dropouts unable to find work. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that dropouts from the class of 2008 will cost Montana almost $830 million in lost wages over their lifetimes.

This state of affairs has left local school administrators concerned.

“I hope all of our teachers feel a certain amount of tension about dropouts,” Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Darlene Schottle said. “All of us, as educators, are under a heightened awareness that we need to be helping our students perform and improve achievement.”

While the data is sobering, possessing it is helpful, according to Schottle.

“It’s good that we know what this looks like because then we can sit down and see where to intervene,” she said.

Until recently, accurate dropout and graduation rates were hard to obtain, as different states and school districts had their own definitions of the terms. Although it might seem that Montana’s graduation rate would be derived from subtracting the dropout rate from the enrolled population, it’s actually more complex.

Dropout rates can be pulled from measuring yearly dropouts from an entire student body, from the proportion of a town’s population without a diploma and who are not enrolled in school, or by following a sample group over time.

In addition, some dropouts can result from clerical errors. If a student moves and fails to send a record request, their former school must record the student as a dropout. Meanwhile, students who leave and enter home schooling without registering with the county superintendent are also considered dropouts. And students who take more than four years to earn a diploma or who leave school but earn a GED are also counted as dropouts.

When combined, these subgroups can create a sizeable portion of a school’s dropout rate, which Schottle says can be a frustrating conundrum.

“It’s a little unfortunate because the purpose of education is to try to get a student to a place where they are able to get to the next level of education or seek a job,” she said. “To me, earning a GED or needing five years to complete their course of study should be a success rather than be perceived a failure.”

Determining a school’s graduation rate, meanwhile, is computed by using a different set of figures.

The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act mandates that graduation rates be derived from comparing the number of graduating seniors with the number of freshmen who entered the school four years earlier. According to Schottle, about 23 percent of Kalispell’s 2008 senior classes failed to graduate within a four-year period.

Finally, a school’s completion rate, which often presents a broader picture, includes students who require additional time to graduate.

Five local students who are currently enrolled in LASER, an alternative high school program, will be counted in the district’s completion rate, but will also be counted as dropouts, because it will take them four-and-a-half years to graduate.

Kalispell’s Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn says that bureaucratic annoyances aside, the district is working to improve the numbers.

“We’ve had very pointed discussions with our staff about failure rates,” he said. “There’s discomfort in those discussions, because if 10 percent of your kids are failing, that’s too many and you need to figure out how to get that down without lowering your grading standards.”

According to Zorn, part of the district’s retaliation involves becoming more adept and thorough in recording individual academic performance data. Zorn says the concentrated information allows educators and administrators to better understand classroom trends and intervene if needed.

“The data allows them to pinpoint which classes suffer the highest fail rates and which students would benefit from additional tutoring, a parent teacher conference or a study hall,” he said. “We’re trying to help kids stop digging themselves into holes.”

Part of this help arrives in the form of a pedagogical tool called the freshman academy. When the 2007 construction of Glacier High School shuffled Kalispell’s high school population into smaller class sizes, it also placed the two freshman classes in a unique learning environment.

“The national research body is very firm that freshman academy-type approaches decrease dropout rates,” Zorn said. “Creating a smaller community is what it’s all about and it allows kids to get more meaningful relationships with a few adults who know them well.”

Essentially a school within a school, the academy divides the freshman classes into teams, where they learn their core subjects under a select group of teachers. After the success of the program in Kalispell, Whitefish High School will start its own freshman academy in the fall.

In addition to the focus at the high school level, Kalispell’s school district is examining what can be done in the elementary schools.

Thanks to a reading intervention program, Zorn estimates that 90 to 95 percent of all Kalispell elementary children are now proficient readers.

“Those are significant increases over the last seven to eight years, and are significantly higher than the state average,” he said. “We’re starting to see some data that show results of that better preparedness they’re getting at that lower level.”

Meanwhile, recent data shows that semester grades at the high school level are rising. Last fall, the number of A’s awarded rose 1.7 percent, representing 36 percent of all assigned grades in the schools, while F’s fell 1.6 percent to 4.1 percent of all grades.

“It might not seem like a whole lot, but when you figure that our high school system has 2,700 kids in seven classes each, that equals 16-17,000 classes that they’re sitting in,” Zorn said. “This means there’s a significant number of kids being impacted.”

Zorn, who will attend a statewide AA Dropout Forum in Helena later this month, notes that while some issues remain beyond the schools’ control, “we are learning that as a school, we can affect more than we once thought.”

Denise Juneau, Montana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, is working at another end to affect the issue. Before being elected, Juneau dealt with dropouts first-hand as an English teacher at a North Dakota high school.

“I’ve had students walk out of class and not come back,” Juneau said. “They’re not there the next year and you wonder what happened, but given all your other duties, it’s hard to track those students.”

Now that she works at the state level, Juneau is hoping to reverse numbers that she says are either stagnating or headed in the wrong direction.

“We need to rethink the high school system because losing that many students a year is unacceptable,” Juneau said. “At a very minimum, students need to have a high school diploma.”

Tracking and recording accurate graduation rates has been a historic challenge, according to Juneau, but she feels the situation is improving. Montana’s Office of Public Instruction uses a system called AIM, or Achievement in Montana, to track student information. According to OPI’s website, the system streamlines the reporting of student data, including dropout rates, from school districts straight to OPI, allowing for more accurate and timely information to be available to policymakers and education leaders.

“We’re able to bring that data to the policymakers to say this is what we need and here is the data to prove it,” she said. “I think the use of data in education is great, necessary and should actually drill all the way down into the classroom.”

Juneau is in the process of creating a legislative agenda called Graduation Matters Montana, which she says was inspired by a program developed by high schools in Missoula.

“In Missoula, they’re involving local businesses and community leaders and are having discussions about how they’re going to keep area children in school,” Juneau said. “What we’re looking at is scaling that up to a statewide initiative.”

Juneau said she’d eventually like to see Graduation Matters programs established at every high school in the Flathead.

“It takes good leadership, true focus, effort and passion to make sure those things get carried out,” Juneau said. “But I know schools can do it.”

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