Recent reports have raised concerns about the low and declining graduation rate at Southeast High School. According to data from the Kansas Department of Education, the four-year graduation rate at Southeast was the lowest among all public high schools in Wichita during the 2016-17 school year. Just 65 percent of all Southeast students – and less than half of all black and white male students – graduated in that year.
The Wichita school district officials and The Eagle Editorial Board said the slipping graduation rate was partially attributable to the relocation of Southeast from its previous location to a new building at the far eastern edge of Wichita. According to these claims, students needing bus service when they could once walk to school have resulted in declining attendance, which in turn has led to the low graduation rate.
The falling graduation rate is real, and it is troubling. However, it was not caused by the school’s relocation.
State data indicate that the graduation rate at Southeast rose annually between 2010 and 2013, peaking at 77.9 percent in that year, but it has fallen significantly every year since. The declining graduation rate predates the construction of the new school building.
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In addition, there has actually been no significant decline in attendance at Southeast, if state data are to be believed. In the 2016-17 school year – the first year of instruction in the new high school building – average attendance at Southeast was 91.7 percent. This was nearly identical to the average attendance over the previous decade at the old building, and higher than the average attendance during the prior two decades. In 2016-17, the average attendance rate at Southeast was higher than the attendance rates at Heights, South, and West, yet the graduation rate was lower.
Since statistics indicate that attendance rates have not substantially declined at Southeast, declining attendance cannot explain the lower graduation rate. What has changed over that time?
Kansas Department of Education data reveal that over the same period during which the graduation rate fell at Southeast, the number of suspensions and expulsions at the school more than doubled. In the 2012-13 school year, 66 students were suspended or expelled; in the 2016-17 school year, 159 students faced those sanctions.
Though possible, it is hard to believe that student delinquency increased so severely in such a short period of time. Rather, it is more likely that the school has become more strict in applying formal disciplinary sanctions to student behavioral problems that may previously have resulted in informal reprimands.
These trends are not unique to Southeast. The rate of suspensions and expulsions has risen severely across the district in the past few years. There were fewer than 2,000 suspensions districtwide annually from 2008 through 2012; in the 2016-17 school year, there were over 3,700. This rise has coincided with a falling graduation rate across the district. Though the decline has been most extreme at Southeast, the graduation rate was also lower in 2016-17 than in 2012-13 at the six other comprehensive high schools during a period of increasing punitiveness at each school.
Research in sociology and education studies consistently shows that suspension and other stringent disciplinary sanctions adversely affect students’ chances of graduating from high school. If the district wants more of its students to graduate, it should work to reform its disciplinary practices in order to keep more students continuously enrolled in school.
Chase Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.