January 27, 1997 in Nation/World

Idaho Has Worst Dropout Rate State Looks For Ways To Keep Students In School

By The Spokesman-Review

President Clinton wants Congress to approve tax breaks that would make two years of college “as universal as high school.”

But a high school diploma is hardly universal. Certainly not in Idaho.

“We’re losing 20 percent of our high school student body each year,” says State Superintendent of Schools Anne Fox. “That’s a great loss to the students, and to the state.”

Idaho has one of the country’s highest dropout rates. That has grownups here scrambling for ways to keep kids in school, from trying different teaching styles to yanking driver’s licenses of anyone who drops out.

The 20 percent dropout rate that Fox cites is based on state analysis of graduating classes over the last three years.

Actually, 28 percent of students left school at some point. That number is misleading, however, because some dropouts enroll elsewhere. Others take correspondence courses or earn a general equivalency degree.

Every youngster who walks out is at risk of not coming back. Many end up on welfare, or worse. Eighty-two percent of America’s prisoners are high school dropouts.

There’s a litany of reasons that students leave, and superintendent Fox recites it readily: They don’t understand the lessons, they’re being abused at home, they don’t comprehend English, they just plain don’t find school “a very pleasant place to be.”

When Coeur d’Alene students were quizzed in 1991 about why they had once dropped out, their reasons also included poverty, drugs, pregnancy, suspension and uncaring teachers.

Such problems are found in every state. So why are dropout rates higher in the West and South, and why in Idaho in particular?

Tom Farley, chief of the state’s bureau of instruction, sees several possible reasons.

There’s a big transient population, and the more often kids change schools the more likely they are to drop out. Rates are especially high among Hispanics, who dominate farm labor.

“With Idaho’s growth and more of a service industry, there are lots of low-end jobs there,” Farley says. Teenagers who can earn a steady paycheck sometimes don’t see the value of continuing their education.

“Idaho is one of the most rural states, and you have to look at what their ancestors have done. They’ve worked on the farm, they’ve worked in the woods, they’ve worked in the mines.”

There are fewer of those decent-paying, blue-collar jobs around. That’s why so much attention is being focused on dropouts, even though more kids than ever are getting diplomas.

Nationwide, there’s a boom in “alternative” schools. Those provide smaller classes and a different atmosphere for kids who aren’t making it at Hometown High.

Idaho’s Legislature jumped on that bandwagon eight years ago, offering to pay for the smaller classes at alternative schools.

Thirty-five of 112 districts have accepted the offer. Others didn’t wait for the subsidy. Coeur d’Alene’s alternative school, Project CDA, opened its doors in 1979.

Last year, Idaho lawmakers tried a more controversial tactic. They passed a law suspending driver’s licenses for high school dropouts.

Gov. Phil Batt doesn’t like the law, saying it punishes people for doing something that’s legal. If you’re 16 or older, you don’t have to be in school.

Fox wants to give the law time, to see if it works.

Other ideas to stop dropouts include:

Smaller schools. A fast-growing population and $700 million construction backlog has made many Idaho schools unacceptably large, educators say. Students end up feeling like a number, like nobody cares. It’s even harder to get a spot on the sports teams.

“I’d reduce the size of every school to no more than 400 students,” says Fox. “When it’s larger, it’s hard for principals to know all of the students, hard for teachers to know who’s there every day.”

There were 2,100 students in Coeur d’Alene High School before Lake City High opened two years ago. Now, there are fewer than 1,200 in each school. That’s probably one reason that the city’s dropout rate has gone from 12 to 9 percent over the past few years, says Judy Drake, director of secondary education.

A sense of belonging. Even in a big building, it’s possible to give students a sense of identity. The Coeur d’Alene District helps ninth graders feel at home by pairing them with older students in the new “Freshman Connection” program.

Post Falls High is trying the school-within-a-school approach. Twenty-five freshmen who were struggling in junior high are learning as a team, on their own schedule. They have fewer, longer class periods and three teachers assigned exclusively to them.

Early intervention. Grade school teachers have no trouble spotting potential high school dropouts. They’re the ones who can’t read. Programs to help struggling first- and second-grade readers are popping up around the state.

“We get ‘em the very earliest we can,” says Post Falls curriculum director Becky Ford.

Personal attention. Staff members at Coeur d’Alene’s high schools have started doing exit interviews. When kids announce they’re dropping out, someone sits down with them to find out why, to urge them to stay.

Idaho’s head education honcho is all for that.

“The power of just five or 10 minutes of support and words about staying in school can really, really help,” says Fox. “We’re trying to get the word across to principals.”

Her favorite cures for dropout disease are parents who value education, and teachers who do a good job.

“With that combination, heaven help that poor young person that wants to drop out of school.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Dropping out

MEMO: Coming next week: A look at alternative schools.

Coming next week: A look at alternative schools.

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