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Schools reject dropout risk study

Mon., Nov. 5, 2007

Cusick High School senior Ryan Garner will graduate in June and head off to college, where he may study criminal justice in order become a game warden.

Garner’s classmate, Danny Pontius, 17, is considering a career in law enforcement, possibly as an agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Raymond Ostlie, another life-long Cusick resident, will consider a year of Bible school before attending a two- or four-year university. While Ostlie, 18, is not sure what he wants to do with his life, he knows that he’ll be earning a high school diploma, like most of the 22 seniors in his graduating class.

So it’s not surprising that Ostlie and his classmates were stunned last week after learning that their school was labeled a “dropout factory” by researchers from Johns Hopkins University.

“This is a huge black eye for our district,” said Superintendent Dan Read, who also called the figures released from the Johns Hopkins study “ridiculous” and “embarrassing.”

The researchers analyzed Education Department data for the Associated Press, which later compiled the data into a list of “dropout factories” that appeared in newspapers across the country.

Cusick, located in Pend Oreille County, is among 1,700 schools nationwide disputing the figures.

Johns Hopkins researchers analyzed statistics from 2004, 2005 and 2006, comparing each high school’s 12th-grade enrollment with ninth-grade enrollment four years earlier.

If the enrollment between ninth and 12th grade dropped by 40 percent or more, the study showed it could be an indicator of low graduation and high dropout rates.

In Washington, 22 schools earned the unflattering title, but tiny Cusick – a district with more than 50 percent of students qualifying for free- and reduced-price lunch – was the only Eastern Washington school on the list.

While every comprehensive school in Tacoma made the list, none from Spokane or Seattle did.

State officials said the study was not intended to calculate dropout rates but to show indicators of a problem. The figures are different from the state on-time graduation numbers reported each year.

“I would strongly caution anyone to make comparison between (the researcher’s) numbers and actual dropout rates,” said Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. His office fielded hundreds of calls from school districts last week disputing the study’s findings.

“His numbers don’t account for a lot of things,” Olson said.

Read said his school was unfairly targeted by the study, which was supposed to only focus on schools with more than 100 students. The high school also houses the middle school, so the study probably factored in seventh- and eighth-graders.

In addition, Read’s district, located near the Kalispel Indian Reservation, is in an economically depressed area and has a high mobility rate, which measures students who move out of the district.

“We have a lot of kids that live with extended family members” and often leave only to return several months later, he said.

In one school year in the study, Cusick had a 51 percent mobility rate, which wasn’t considered by researchers, Read said.

When students leave schools, districts can classify them as transfers rather than dropouts only if their records are requested from new schools.

According to the state, Cusick has a 74 percent on-time graduation rate, which measures those students who graduate within four years.

Read said that his district had only four students leave without being accounted for in four years. Because of the schools’ small size, each student equals about five percent.

“(The study) is a poor reflection on our families and our kids,” Read said. “It’s totally inaccurate.”

Most of the schools were in poor rural and urban school districts, but there were some anomalies, such as the prestigious Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, which bills itself a rigorous college preparatory school that “isn’t for everyone.” The school was one of three Idaho schools on the AP’s list.

The researchers did not track individual students, nor did they consider new schools built during that time that would have split a school’s population in two, district officials said.

Such was the case at Meridian High School near Boise, where district officials say the researchers didn’t consider that a new high school opened in 2003.

“The total population of Meridian High dropped by 45 percent,” said Eric Exline, spokesman for the district. “That’s not even calculated in there.”

He said Meridian’s high school graduation rate was 89 percent last year.

The district has written Johns Hopkins University to request the school be removed from the list.

“It wasn’t tremendously responsible to sort of single out and name schools without being a little more sure of your data than that,” Exline said. “It was just kind of grossly inaccurate from our view.”

Dan Nicklay, principal of the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, called his school’s place on the list “ridiculous.”

“We’re a school of choice. We are, by design, not for everybody,” Nicklay said.

Students leave the school every year for Lake City, Coeur d’Alene High or other schools. Nicklay couldn’t think of one student who’s left the school and not enrolled elsewhere.

“Kids who go to another school are not dropouts,” Nicklay said.

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