Georgia’s dropout rate recalculated, DOE attempts to make curriculum more relevant to students

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Grace Power

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“I was honestly tired of everything,” former Grady student Morgan Rutledge said concerning her withdrawal from school. “Most of my good friends left the school anyways, so it just got really old and boring for me.”

After making the decision to drop out, Rutledge joined the one million students—a quarter of the total high school student population—who drop out of high school annually in the United States.

The graduation rate at Grady released in the 2011 Annual Yearly Progress Report was 88.5 percent. This calculation took into account only the number of students receiving a diploma divided by the size of the senior class at the start of the year. Students who leave school before their senior year are not accounted for in this calculation.

In 2012 APS began a transfer to a new, federally mandated graduation rate calculation. According to the state DOE, this new graduation rate will take the number of students who earned a regular high school diploma by the end of the school year and divide that by the number of first-time ninth graders in the fall four years prior, plus students who transfer in, minus students who transfer out, emigrate or die during that time.

This change caused the Georgia graduation rate to drop from 80.9 percent to 67.4 percent. Grady’s 2012 graduation rate has not been calculated at this time.

The old calculation is the only one applied to the breakdown of minority students in the AYP report. According to the report, out of the 236 African-American seniors at Grady, 85.6 percent graduated at the end of the year and out of the 76 Caucasian seniors, 96.1 percent graduated at the end of the year. Statistics for other races were not provided, although they collectively make up 5.5 percent of the 2010-2011 senior class.

DOE spokesperson Matt Cardoza said one reason for the decrease from the 80.9 percent figure to the 67.4 percent figure is the new graduation calculation’s consideration of how long it takes a student to earn a diploma.

The new graduation rate counts students who take longer than four years to graduate in the denominator of the fraction, thus never counting them as graduates. This caused much of the dip in the graduation rate because of the high number of students in Georgia taking five years or more to earn a diploma, he said.

Before this new mandate Georgia had possessed a graduation rate higher than its Southern neighbors. This new calculation, however, places Georgia almost 10 percentage points behind states such as Alabama and Mississippi and just above New York and Nevada.

School Life

According to a report released in 2009 by America’s Promise Alliance, “The high school dropout crisis in the United States claims more than one million students each year, costing individuals who drop out potential earnings and the nation hundreds of billions of dollars in lost revenue, lower economic activity and increased social services.”

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia schools superintendent John Barge said, “Students drop out of high school because it bores them and doesn’t seem relevant to the jobs they want.”

The Georgia Department of Education will begin a program next school year in which each student in Georgia will enter into a career pathway as a freshman that will guide them through high school, Cardoza said. Similar to Grady’s SLCs, students will begin their pathway in their freshman year and continue until they are seniors. The career pathways, however, will offer more options than Grady’s four SLCs.

These pathways would follow the National Career Clusters model set out by the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium already being used in schools around Georgia and the United States. The model includes 16 independent clusters, and each of the clusters would contain about10 distinct careers for students to choose from in their freshman year. There will be one additional cluster added to address the energy sector, which is growing in Georgia.

“Once you get through the core classes in freshman and sophomore years, you will have opportunities for apprenticeships and internships,” Cardoza said. “Let’s say you want to be a teacher, what we’re really going to work towards is [to] place a student in a classroom with another teacher and [so they can see] ‘Do I really like working with kids; Do I want to teach?’ Even if they find out what they don’t want to do, it may save lots of time, energy and money.”

This new program is a direct initiative to control the dropout situation.

“Local systems have the bigger play in actually educating students, but the main responsibility is to make education relevant, especially in high schools, so students can make a connection between what they are doing in class and in the future,” Cardoza said. “The point of pathways is to make school relevant.”

Home Life

Students dropout due to boredom, but also problems at home such as evictions or parenthood, said Neil Shorthouse, president and state director of Communities in Schools Georgia.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 30 percent of teenage girls who dropped out cited parenthood as a reason for their dropping out of high school. Girls, however, are not the only ones at risk for dropping out after this kind of life-changing event.

“Boys who are young fathers drop out at almost the same rate as pregnant girls,” Shorthouse said. Communities in Schools Georgia works with students dealing with issues such as these, referred to as the “noncognitive forces” that lead students to dropout.

“[Communities in Schools Georgia] considers] there are two forces to make a person successful in life: the instructional side … then there is another side: their family, their income, if they get involved in drugs, their friends. In order for these kids to be successes, we can’t ignore these noncognitive forces,” Shorthouse said. Communities in Schools works with schools around the United States to deter students from dropping out once they are deemed to be “at risk.”

“We have kids who aren’t even sleeping on beds, kids whose household is in total chaos.…well that is going to decrease one’s ability to focus in schools,” Shorthouse said. Communities in Schools Georgia has staff members in hundreds of Georgia schools and is always looking to expand, Shorthouse said. CIS also engages many other organizations in its effort to lower the dropout rate.

“[CIS] get as many other organizations involved as possible. For example, in middle school we would like all students to be involved in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts or something like that,”  Shorthouse said.

CIS works to keep students’ home lives on track with their school lives. This can include assistance at school or at home with issues with friends or parents. On Feb.18, a member of the Athens CIS staff prevented an eviction of one of their at-risk students.

“Education takes a less important role in one’s life when you are wondering where to live,” Shorthouse said. “We put students into some very positive, life-building stuff.”

There are not CIS employees stationed at any APS schools. They are, however, looking to expand their spread throughout schools in Georgia.

Dropout Factories

According to a Johns Hopkins study published in 2007, 12 percent of schools in the United States are “Dropout Factories.” This term, coined by Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, applies to any school that retains 60 percent or fewer of the students who began at that school as freshmen.

According to the Associated Press, 38.87 percent of schools in Georgia were considered “dropout factories” in 2006. In APS, schools labeled as dropout factories include Carver High, South Atlanta, Therrell and Washington high schools, based upon their retention rates from freshman to senior year. Although the graduation rate is not a direct complement of the dropout rate, the two are closely related. Belfanz was cited in an Associated Press article stating that “While some of the missing students transferred, most dropped out.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education website, “these dropout factories are unacceptable and devastate the communities in which they exist.” The Obama Administration, which passed the Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 2010 and incorporated funding for education in the 2013 budget request, is working toward a goal of a lower dropout rate and a lower rate of dropout factories.

On the Rise

Nationally, the graduation rate is improving. According to the report “Building a Grad Nation,” high school graduation rates are improving across the nation, with Georgia as one of the leaders in improvement between 2002 and 2009. In addition, initiatives such as the one put forth by CIS and the state DOE are attempting to lower this number further.

“The main responsibility [for schools] is to make education relevant, especially in high school so students can make a connection between what they are doing in class and in the future,” Cardoza said.

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