3/19/12 U.S. graduation rate makes gains

U.S. graduation rate makes gains
By Kimberly Hefling, The Associated Press The Times-News 3/19/12     
Reprinted with permission.

N.C. among leaders in improvements
By Tom Breen    The Associated Press

  RALEIGH — North Carolina is among a handful of states responsible for the majority of growth in high school graduation rates over the past decade, according to a report scheduled to be released today in Washington.

   The state is also singled out for praise in being among the national leaders in reducing the number of schools that graduate 60 percent or fewer of their students on time, referred to by the report as “dropout factories.”

   “The progress you’re seeing in North Carolina is remarkable and it’s sustained over time, which provides some pretty compelling evidence that our state is moving in the right direction,” said Tony Habit, president of the North Carolina New Schools Project, which was not involved in the report but tracks graduation rates in the state.

   According to an advance copy of the report, the graduation rate in North Carolina rose from 68.2 percent in 2002 to 75.1 percent in 2009. At the same time, the number of so-called “dropout factories” declined from 106 schools to 78, the report found.

   That puts North Carolina among 12 states that accounted for the bulk of graduation rate increases over the previous decade, a group that includes neighbors South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

   Overall, the national graduation rate rose from 72 percent to 75.5 percent between 2001 and 2009.

   The progress in North Carolina is particularly remarkable, Habit said, given the disruption in the economy over the past 10 years, with longstanding industries like textiles and tobacco shrinking or radically changing.

   “If I were to have walked into the faculty lounge of a high school in the 1980s and say it was our responsibility to achieve a 100 percent graduation rate, I would have been laughed out of the room,” Habit said. “Today, there are a growing number of schools in the state with a 100 percent graduation rate or a zero percent dropout rate or who are seeing dramatic gains because they’ve made this a priority.”

   There are still challenges, Habit said, such as the disproportionate role that poverty plays in whether students graduate on time. Figures from the state Department of Public Instruction also show that racial disparities remain a problem, with black, Latino and American Indian students more likely to drop out than their white or Asian peers.

  HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The last straw for 17-year-old Alton Burke was a note left on his door. The high school dropout picked up the phone and reenrolled at South Hagerstown High.

   Burke missed roughly 200 days of class, but Heather Dixon, the student intervention specialist who left the note, never gave up on him.

   Aggressive efforts to prevent students such as Burke from dropping out contributed to a modest 3.5 percentage point increase nationally in the high school graduation rate from 2001 to 2009, according to research to be presented today at the Grad Nation summit in Washington. The event was organized by the children’s advocacy group America’s Promise Alliance, founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

   The graduation rate was 75 percent in 2009, meaning 1 in 4 students fails to get a diploma in four years, researchers found. That’s well below the organization’s goal of 90 percent by 2020.

   Researchers found that the number of “dropout factories,” schools that fail to graduate more than 60 percent of students on time, had dropped by more than 450 between 2002 and 2010, but that 1,550 remain.

   “Big gains are possible if you work hard at it, and if you don’t focus on it, you’re going to go backward,” said Robert Balfanz, a report author and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

   The increase in graduation rates was primarily because of growth in 12 states, with New York and Tennessee showing double digit gains since 2002, according to the research. At the other end, 10 states had declines: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Rhode Island and Utah.

   So far, only Wisconsin has met the 90 percent benchmark, although Vermont is close.

   “This year’s report proves struggling schools are not destined to fail,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The reality is that even one dropout factory is too many.”

   The authors said there are proven strategies to tackle the problem, such as getting all students to read at grade level, raising the compulsory school attendance age to 18 and developing “early warning” systems to help identify students that might be at risk of later dropping out.

   In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama encouraged states to pass laws to require students to stay in school until they graduate or they turn 18.

   It’s estimated that high school graduates will earn $130,000 more over their lifetimes than dropouts, and that high school graduates will generate more than $200,000 in higher tax revenues and savings in government expenditures over their lifetime, the report said.

   How to track high school graduation rates has been a contentious issue for years, with states using different methods to come up with a number. Balfanz cited this as a reason why the report does not include the names of the dropout factories. He said they will be included in a future report once all states are consistently reporting data.

   States are now required to use the same method to compute graduation rates based on a Bush administration rule issued in 2008.

   Nevada stood out for its low graduation rate of 56 percent, a decline of more than 15 percentage points from 2002 to 2009, the largest of any state, the report said. During Nevada’s boom years, students dropped out to earn hefty paychecks parking cars, pouring concrete or serving drinks along the Las Vegas Strip.

   “Today, many of Las Vegas’ dropouts are out of work and unable to jumpstart the economy because they lack the required credentials,” the report said.

   But Balfanz said there are some signs that the state is “organizing itself against its big challenge.”

   The Clark County School District of Las Vegas, for example, has developed a partnership with Vegas PBS for an online program designed to help students earn missing credits needed to graduate. It also started the “Reclaim Your Future” program, which sent school employees and community volunteers door to door to persuade dropouts to return to school.

   State education officials in New Mexico and Arizona point to their own graduation statistics, which show rates increasing gradually for three consecutive years.

   “When we talk about the economy, there’s a three-prong stool — what are your taxes like, are you business friendly and the third piece is whether you have an education system that is creating a workforce prepared and ready,” New Mexico’s Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said.