The new Southeast High is bigger and better. So why is its graduation rate dropping?

A Wichita school district official says the graduation rate at Southeast High School has suffered since the school moved from its previous location to the outer reaches of the district.
A Wichita school district official says the graduation rate at Southeast High School has suffered since the school moved from its previous location to the outer reaches of the district. File photo

A Wichita school district official says attendance at Southeast High School — and consequently, its graduation rate — has suffered since the school moved to the far reaches of the district in 2016.

Southeast High posted the lowest graduation rate in the district last year, with only 65.4 percent of students graduating in four years, according to data from the Kansas Department of Education.

Dissecting the data into subgroups reveals more shocking numbers: Among white males at Southeast High, fewer than 47 percent graduated in four years. Among black males, only 48.1 percent graduated in four years.

Southeast's graduation rate has dropped steadily over the past several years, from nearly 78 percent in 2013. In comparison, the Wichita school district's average graduation rate rose slightly last year, to nearly 74 percent.

Gil Alvarez, assistant superintendent of secondary schools, said it's hard to pinpoint precisely why more Southeast students are struggling to graduate. But "the change in venue" has resulted in more students missing school more often, he said.

At the old location at Lincoln and Edgemoor, "children had the opportunity to walk to school, so tardies would not have turned into attendance problems," Alvarez said. "If a kid now does not make the bus and doesn't have a car to get there, it's not walking distance. So that becomes a challenge."

In 2013, the Wichita school board voted to build a new Southeast High at 127th Street East and Pawnee, about 7 miles from its old location. The school, which opened in 2016, was the largest and most expensive project of the district's 2008 bond issue, costing about $65 million.

Some lawmakers and neighborhood groups actively fought the plan to move the school out of its diverse, low-income neighborhood, saying students and parents would have a harder time getting to class, conferences and activities.

"I knew from personal experience that moving Southeast as far as they were moving it would have a negative effect on attendance," said Brandon Johnson, who represents District 1 on the Wichita City Council. His district includes East and Heights high schools.

In 2013, before he joined the council, he urged Wichita school board members to renovate and expand Southeast High rather than relocate it.

Johnson graduated from Northeast Magnet High School, which was relocated in 2012 from an inner-city neighborhood at 17th and Chautauqua to a new building in Bel Aire, near 53rd Street North and Rock Road.

"If something happened in the morning — if my mom was sick or had to be at work early — I could walk to school and still be on time or only slightly late," Johnson said of the previous Northeast Magnet location. "It was close enough that it was easy to get a friend to take me a school.

"When you move a school way out of the neighborhood, it makes it harder for some families," he said, despite district-funded bus transportation. "You have to make sure they catch the bus on time, and if they don't, there aren't a whole lot of options.

"I'm saddened to hear that that's happened."

In 2012, about 43 percent of Southeast High School students lived less than 2.5 miles from school. About one-third of those students regularly walked, officials said. At the new location, fewer than 10 percent of students live within 2.5 miles of the school.

Alvarez, the assistant superintendent, said schools continually emphasize the importance of regular attendance because students with better attendance graduate on time at higher rates.

Chronic absenteeism — defined as missing 10 percent or more of school time, or about four days per nine-week period — is "something we really need to pay attention to," Alvarez said. "Because if students aren't engaged and connected within the school, that could tend to lead to more dropouts."

Transportation is a commonly cited reason for missing school.

Last fall, the Wichita district announced a new partnership with Wichita Transit that lets students buy discounted city bus passes for traveling to school and elsewhere. That program, aimed at students at seven schools who don't qualify for yellow-bus service through the district, serves East, North and West high schools as well as four middle schools.

Southeast High School, which is close to the Butler County line, is outside the area served by city buses.

Wichita school officials say raising the graduation rate is one of their top priorities for the next five years, a goal laid out recently in the district's new strategic plan.

Wichita's graduation rate stood at about 74 percent in 2017 — significantly below the statewide average of nearly 87 percent. Graduation rates vary greatly within the district, from 65.4 percent at Southeast to 94.6 percent at Northeast Magnet.

At West High, a school with demographics similar to Southeast's and a higher percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch, the graduation rate last year was 70.6 percent. Among white males at West, the rate was 57.4 percent; among black males, 74.1 percent.

Leaders haven't said precisely how they plan to raise the graduation rate at Southeast or districtwide, but board members have mentioned using an expected increase in state funding to pay for more secondary-school counselors and programs for students at risk of dropping out.

The district recently announced administrative changes at several high schools, including Southeast. Bruce Deterding, principal at Heights High School, will move to Southeast this fall. Southeast principal Lori Doyle will move to North High.

Next year, each of the district's seven comprehensive high schools will have an on-site learning center where students will be able to make up credits during the regular school day, Alvarez said. In addition, schools plan to focus more attention on ninth-graders, alerting students and family members early on if they're in danger of falling behind on graduation requirements.

"We don't want one failed credit to turn into two or three," he said. "We want to look at those early indicators in ninth grade, and not wait until junior or senior year to say, 'Hurry up and get these done.'"

Johnson said he hopes district officials dig into reasons for Southeast's low graduation rate, including attendance and transportation issues.

"I hope the district and parents can find a way to get their students to school, because attendance is key to success and our young people need that education," he said. "I hope we can get creative and find solutions."