Spokane Public Schools has intensified its efforts to lower the high school dropout rate, and the latest progress report has some encouraging news.
More than 75 percent of students are graduating on time, which is a 7 percentage-point increase from last year, when the district decided to use federal guidelines for counting. Under a different set of calculations, on-time graduation dropped to as low as 62 percent in the 2007-’08 school year.
As it turned out, that way of counting exaggerated the problem, but it also triggered an urgent community conversation on how to get more students to the finish line. A local ballot initiative aimed at that challenge (among other child-related issues) was rejected by voters, but it also deserves credit for training the spotlight on this issue.
Two changes have been critical to driving down the dropout rate.
First, the district has made a concerted effort to keep track of students to get an accurate count. Officials discovered by filling in the gaps on student data that the dropout rate wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Some students were graduating, but not on time. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reports that nearly 5,000 students statewide received a late diploma in 2010.
Second, the district decided to intervene early and often when it looked as if a student was in danger of dropping out. The best example is at Rogers High School, where the on-time graduation rate has jumped by 19 percentage points. Administrators accomplished this with the help of a grant called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) and by engaging students with personalized “what do you need to succeed?” inquiries.
At the same time, the district is attempting to curb social promotion (passing unworthy students) as a way to boost graduation numbers.
Not every effort has been successful.
A program aimed at helping faltering middle school students recently reported disappointing results. Individual Credit Advancement Now, or ICAN, was designed to target students who showed signs of becoming dropouts or who were being socially promoted.
Administrators found that some students’ educational shortcomings are too profound for the help that was provided. Earlier intervention may be needed. Plus, some students’ general apathy toward school undercut any assistance that was offered. The district is now reassessing ICAN and hopes to improve it.
A perfect graduation rate is a pipe dream. There is only so much educators can do to overcome the culture and challenges many students face at home. However, these recent efforts show that there was more schools could have been doing. The community should rally around the district to encourage even greater progress.
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