Tuesday, October 30, 2007

U.S. Department Of Education Data Shows Seven Alaska Schools To Be "Dropout Factories"

Seven of Alaska's 40 high schools -- or more than 17 percent -- have the dubious distinction of being "dropout factories," according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data published Monday October 29th, 2007. Full story on Alaska schools published in the Anchorage Daily News. National perspective provided by an ABC News report.

The nationwide statistics come from Education Department data analyzed by Johns Hopkins University for The Associated Press. The data tracked senior classes for three years in a row -- 2004, 2005 and 2006 -- to make sure local events such as plant closures weren't to blame for the low retention rates. A "Dropout Factory" designation goes to the school where 60 percent or less of the students who start as freshmen advance to their senior year.

I could not find this data in tabular form yet. However, I found an Associated Press graphic which lists the specific schools on a state-by state basis.

Click HERE to view AP graphic, then click on the state of interest.

Nationally, Southern tier states had the highest percentage of "dropout factories". Race is somewhat of an issue; Southeastern states tend to have higher percentages of blacks, and Southwestern states tend to have higher percentages of Latinos. Statistically, blacks and Latinos have a greater tendency to underperform and to drop out of high school. At the other end of the scale, Utah was the only state without any "dropout factories". An article in the Deseret Morning News cites Utah's UPASS (Utah Performance and Assessment System) initiative as a contributing factor. Teachers and principals have an incentive with the UPASS report cards to avoid negative publicity associated with dropout rates and encourage students who may leave school. Teachers and principals personally track students who leave schools, and then try to persuade them to return for graduation. However, the Deseret News also acknowledges that Utah does has lower poverty rates and fewer minorities than most states.

Of the seven Alaska schools tagged with the label of "dropout factory", three are in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District: Ben Eielson Jr./Sr. High School, Lathrop High School and North Pole High School. Other Alaska districts falling into that category were: Lower Kuskokwim's Bethel Regional, Dillingham City's high school, Matanuska Susitna Borough's Wasilla High and North Slope Borough's Barrow High.

Here are the pertinent numbers for each Alaska school on the list. I also consulted the Alaska Department of Education AYP database to determine if there was a correlation between being a "dropout factory" and failure to make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) in 2005-6 under No Child Left Behind:

Barrow High School: 40% retention, 89.9% minority, did NOT meet AYP
Bethel Regional High School: 52% retention, 85.8% minority, did NOT meet AYP
Dillingham Jr/Sr High School: 60% retention, 85.2% minority, did NOT meet AYP
Eielson Jr/Sr High School: 58% retention, 19.6% minority, met AYP
Lathrop High School: 47% retention, 35.3% minority, did NOT meet AYP
North Pole High School: 51% retention, 20.4% minority, met AYP
Wasilla High School: 58% retention, 17.1% minority, did NOT meet AYP

Two of the schools on the list do NOT fit the demographic model. Despite meeting AYP and having a low percentage of minority students, both Eielson and North Pole made the list. Both these schools have a disproportionately high percentage of military students from the nearby Eielson AFB. Miltary personnel are subject to sudden transfer out of the state, and schools cannot track students who leave the state. Such students are then classified as "droputs", which in turn skews the dropout rate excessively and incorrectly upward. Other factors wrongfully skewing the dropout rate upward, according to a report in the Arizona Republic about Arizona schools, include transfer to charter schools and students who take more than four years to graduate.

The other "oddball" school is Wasilla. While it has a low minority population, it failed to meet AYP standards. However, further research indicates another anomaly; 27.4% of Wasilla students qualified for the free/reduced price lunch program. This was a much higher percentage than that of the other six schools on the list. It implies that there may be a high percentage of working class whites who are not adequately employed (many seasonal jobs) and whose kids may feel pressure to drop out in order to go to work to provide financial help for their families. This theory is supported by the fact that, although the Mat-Su Valley area is the fastest-growing area of the state, population growth has outstripped job growth.

While neither the schools involved nor their districts have yet responded to media enquiries, the Alaska State Department of Education is on top of the issue. Spokesman Eric Fry acknowledged that, while they've not seen the report, the Department doesn't dispute the premise behind it.

"We don't doubt it for one second," Fry said, while noting some unique challenges of educating rural Alaska youth. "There isn't going to be one solution to working on this problem because there are so many reasons," he continued. "There are kids who are homeless, there are kids who have to take care of younger siblings, there are kids who need a job."

Fry further stated that the state is attacking the problem from several angles, such as:

- Mentoring new teachers. "This isn't something you pick up right away out of college," Fry said.

- Reviewing curriculum and teaching methods. Fry said these are called instructional audits designed to engage students. "If they are doing better, they are less likely to drop out," he said.

- A new preparatory curriculum called, "work ready, college ready," designed to be more inclusive when preparing students for post-graduation life.

Two of Alaska's lawmakers took time out of the special session in progress to address the issue. Rep. Bob Roses (R-Anchorage), a veteran of 20 years teaching in the Anchorage School District, considers it important because, due to outsourcing, the manufacturing jobs once available to high school dropouts no longer exist.

House Rules Committee Chairman John Coghill (R-North Pole), whose district includes one of the schools and who is familiar with the other two Fairbanks-area schools on the list, said a transient lifestyle plays a huge role in dropouts. He points out that in the Fairbanks area, many parents are based at Eielson Air Force Base and may be transferred to another base before the student can graduate. This analogy can also be applied to Fort Wainwright, which is located almost in downtown Fairbanks.

However, Coghill states that transience issues are not limited to the military, he said. "If you've ever lived in Alaska, you'd know Bethel is a hub, and that's been tough on kids whose families migrate in from Anchorage, then move on to Fort Yukon," Coghill said. "Their parents are following dollar bills. They are trying to figure out where the next dollar is, or they have a cultural-traditional issue," he continued.

Rep. Coghill also identified social issues like drugs as causative factors. He cited a meth lab in his district which targeted kids as a contributory factor. However, Coghill also criticized school districts for not keeping pace with workforce developmental demands. "Not everybody is going to go to college. There are people out there very, very good at working with their hands or thinking differently than what academia thinks. We do well at getting students into academia but not that great at getting them into the workforce," Coghill stated.

What seems to be missing from this analysis is a look at parental involvement and how to encourage and use it to create a more disciplined environment in the schools. An essay posted on the Prca.org website addresses this issue. Here's an excerpt:

I am frequently astonished and disturbed that the teachers fail to receive total support from the parents in the discipline of their children. This seems surprising because our goal is, or ought to be, the same: training the child in the way of obedience. We often hear that parents are saying, "The teachers ought to show more compassion." "Teachers don't understand my child." When I explore these complaints, seem to find that many parents really mean, "If my child did wrong, it must be the fault of something or someone else." "Teachers really shouldn't punish my child."

There seem to be problems between parents and teachers of divergent ideas of discipline. Some parents seem to believe in the natural goodness of their children and allow their children to rule in the home. Some parents seem to believe that they can gain their child's love by giving him what he wants and acceding to his demands. They believe that their child will then love them and will obey them. Nothing could be more mistaken. Most often children from permissive homes will be demanding, self-willed, self-centered, and unhappy. Further, if the parents have not established their own authority, it is difficult for the teacher to establish his authority. But teachers also may fail to establish their authority and allow the children too much "freedom." A child that comes from a well-disciplined home will be confused and unhappy in a permissive environment. Other teachers may rule too harshly and arbitrarily, failing to demonstrate love through discipline. The key here is cooperative effort, home and school supporting each other toward the same goal.

Too many parents either fail to get involved, or else they constantly second-guess the school. Parents must take primary responsibility for their kids' education; the schools merely provide the expertise. Parents must support the school when the school seeks to discipline their children, and present a united front to the child. Our schools cannot fulfill their mission without discipline in the classroom.

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