Districts facing stricter graduation rate goals for funding

Going back to high school seemed "pretty crazy" to 20-year-old Louis Arnett.

"Then I thought, 'Do I want to be a dropout forever?' " said Arnett, a Wichita East High School senior.

So, in August, Arnett walked up to the enrollment table at East High. He received a few curious looks.

"Their first thought was, 'We don't get many 20-year-olds here,' " he said, chuckling.

"Now I kind of blend in. No one knows if they don't ask how old I am."

Arnett is halfway through his last semester of high school — with all A's.

But as he works to graduate in December, Arnett forever counts as a dropout in the district's graduation rate.

Educators statewide have focused discussion this month on preventing dropouts, holding summits in Wichita. One question they are dealing with:

How will schools measure progress — in numbers or individuals?

Room for interpretation

The numbers leave a lot of room for interpretation.

The Kansas Department of Education calculated the Wichita district's graduation rate in 2006 as 76.9 percent. A national study said only 61 percent of the students who entered ninth grade graduated with the class of 2006.

"You almost have to analyze each rate — what's included and excluded — to understand what it represents," said Judi Miller, an assistant director at the state Department of Education.

She said that's partly why the federal government is requiring states to start calculating graduation rates with the same formula. In two years, schools will have to meet stricter graduation rate guidelines to receive federal money to support high-poverty schools.

The change and the higher financial stakes are prompting states, including Kansas, to track students individually and provide better documentation of what becomes of each of them, said Chris Swanson, vice president for research and development for the Editorial Projects in Education, the organization that produces Education Week newspaper.

"Some states tend to overestimate graduation rates," Swanson said. "Kansas is kind of in that category."

In a study directed by Swanson released in April, Wichita's graduation rate was calculated at 54.5 percent with an almost 18 percentage point decline in the 10-year span from 1995 to 2005. That landed Wichita at the bottom of the nation's 50 largest cities in graduation rate growth.

The report was in part funded by America's Promise Alliance, which sponsored the Kansas DropINs summit this month.

Kansas calculates graduation rate by dividing the number of graduating seniors by the number of graduating seniors plus dropouts for the past four years.

Swanson said the state formula's dependency on dropout count leaves it open to a school's interpretation of what defines a dropout. He said he uses a formula that relies on more concrete enrollment and graduation numbers.

Most years, though, Swanson said Wichita falls in the middle of urban school districts nationwide in graduation rate and growth. Wichita's graduation rate for 2006 was 61 percent with an "above average" growth of almost 10 percentage points over a 10-year span from 1996 to 2006, he said. Because of the way rates are figured, dramatic swings in 10-year periods are not unusual.

The principal purpose of graduation rate research is to call attention to the "graduation crisis" in urban schools, Swanson said.

"People are seeing they're not as high as they need to be," he said, which brings urgency to high school reform.

Kansas should be able to calculate more accurate graduation rates with its individual tracking system and a federal formula that accounts for each ninth-grader entering high school, Miller said.

"But it depends on what you do with it," she said. "We can do a root-cause of analysis and look at the issues" that cause dropouts.

Reasons kids drop out

Arnett, the East High senior, was one of the more than 3,600 Kansas students who didn't graduate with the class of 2007.

Those who didn't graduate that year could cost the state an estimated $946 million in lost earnings, taxes and productivity, according to Kansas DropINs.

Arnett said he dropped out of Heights High in 2006, his junior year. He said he had been kicked out of his parents' home, spent a few months in a foster home and then, when he turned 18, had to support himself.

"It was either a job or school," Arnett said. "I couldn't do both."

When he started working a steady part-time job as a cook in the jail about a year ago, he said he had time to search for ways to earn his diploma.

He had been struggling with studying for GED exams when he saw his little brother walk across the stage to receive his diploma from Heights High School in May.

"Back then I had no hope," Arnett said. "My brother just passes by me with his cap and gown."

His brother is studying at Wichita State University now, and Arnett jokingly said he definitely was going to graduate before his little sister, who is 12.

Family problems and other obstacles outside of school appear to be the main reasons that students drop out, said Jessica Noble, who coordinates the Kansas DropINs effort.

She said a survey of almost 500 students statewide — almost half dropouts — indicated that taking on a job and pregnancy also are reasons teens leave school.

In Wichita public schools, the state's largest district, almost 70 percent of students come from low-income families. The reasons for dropping out range from needing to get a job to years of academic frustration, said Denise Wren, assistant superintendent of high schools.

"We look at the (graduation) rates, and we talk to our kids and find out why," she said.

The district tries to address students' issues by providing programs to help keep students coming to school, such as child care or counseling, Wren said. But she said as the state faces a budget crisis and cuts in aid to schools, money to operate those programs is shrinking.

"They help support kids so they can go into the classroom," Wren said. "Our biggest challenge is there are a lot of factors outside of our control, but I tell teachers we control what we can control."

'One kid too many'

Noble said the Kansas DropINs summits should help schools share more than 30 successful programs statewide to prevent dropouts.

No specific goals have been set, and Noble said she doesn't know whether Kansas DropINs will be able to track the effectiveness of dropout prevention strategies that a school might establish. The group's grants from America's Promise Alliance and State Farm Insurance run out at the end of the year.

Noble said graduation and dropout rates — or how they're calculated — don't matter to her. What matters is each dropout.

"It's a heck of a lot of kids," she said. "One kid is one too many."

Arnett said he's on his way to walk across the stage with the class of 2010 — and most likely will join his brother among the ranks of college students.

He was recognized by the school board last week with a 99 Percent Award, given to one student at each school for outstanding effort and ethic.

Arnett said he unexpectedly found fellow students looking up to him, and he wants to provide encouragement to anyone struggling to graduate.

"No matter what the odds are, just stay in those classes," Arnett said. "Nobody says you have to be perfect. Keep your main focus on your studies."

His dream is to become a screenwriter and filmmaker, but he's interested in computer science as a short-term job goal.

But the undeniable benefit of a high school diploma?

"To make a better future out there for me," Arnett said. "You practically need it anywhere you go."