Some Wichitans saw Southeast High’s problems coming

Too many students are missing their buses to Southeast High and are unable to walk to the new school, causing attendance problems, a school district official said.
Too many students are missing their buses to Southeast High and are unable to walk to the new school, causing attendance problems, a school district official said. The Wichita Eagle

Fewer than two out of three students are graduating in four years from one of Wichita’s high schools, and that fact should alarm all of us.

What’s more, less than 47 percent of white males and 48.1 percent of black males at Southeast High School are graduating in the normal four-year period.

This is a problem that needs special attention from the Wichita school district, which finds itself with a striking visual: a two-year-old, state-of-the-art school has startlingly low graduation rates.

Fixes won’t be quick or easy.

District administrators and Board of Education members have talked about more school counselors, programs for at-risk students, focus on ninth-graders’ path to graduation and an on-site learning center where students can make up credits.

An emphasis on one-on-one work with at-risk students is necessary to keep them on track. But the school’s location is a problem that isn’t going away.

Five years ago, the school board weighed whether to expand and renovate Southeast, located for 56 years at Lincoln and Edgemoor, or build new at 127th East and Pawnee. The debate, which was public and thorough, came down to a showcase school in the far reaches of the city or improving an outdated building in the city’s core.

The meeting where a new Southeast was chosen included a rare 45 minutes of board members explaining their reasoning. This editorial board leaned slightly toward a new school, acknowledging it would leave where many of its students lived.

Opponents of a new school rightly, in retrospect, argued attendance problems would be inevitable for students who lived within walking distance of the old school.

We’re now seeing, a district official said, a far-away school has impacted attendance and, by association, graduation figures. Chronically absent students have a much harder time reaching graduation.

At Southeast, many students who once walked to the old building can’t find transportation to the new school if they miss their district-provided bus.

To be sure, there’s frustration when a teenager can’t be counted on to reach a bus stop on time. Critics will shout about poor parenting and emphasizing a student’s personal responsibility.

But improvement for chronically late students is incremental. The district, and our community, don’t have time to let these students fail themselves. Solutions are possible.

A bus dedicated to tardy students could pick up stragglers at the old building, now used as district administrative offices, with the aim of them reaching school and missing no more than one or two classes.

The community wasn’t planning on this problem 10 years ago. A highlight of the $370 million bond issue approved by voters in 2008 was two new, Class 4A-sized high schools in the northeast and southeast corners of the district to alleviate overcrowding in other schools.

But an economic downturn, accentuated by $60 million in school-finance cuts by the state, forced the district to break its bond promise of additional high schools. Northeast Magnet was moved from 17th and Chautauqua in 2012 to the new school in Bel Aire. A year later, the board decided the new far-southeast building wouldn’t be an additional school, but a new Southeast High.

Southeast isn’t going anywhere now, and its problems are more than missed buses and location. Behavioral problems — including four reports of battery of a school employee — led to faculty asking district leaders in December to take “decisive and strong actions” to combat it.

Its principal, Lori Doyle, moves to North High this summer in a three-principal move that brings Heights principal Bruce Deterding to Southeast.

The school has many points of pride. Senior Kevin Dao is a winner of this year’s Wichita State University’s $64,000 Gore Memorial Scholarship. It’s the second time in four years a Southeast student has received one of WSU’s top scholarships.

The Golden Buffaloes’ marching band represented Kansas in the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade in December.

The first-class building has many first-class students, but the Wichita district has to find solutions to raise a 65.4-percent graduation rate. The third of students that aren’t reaching graduation need help inside and outside the new building.