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Education: How many children left behind?

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Twenty, twenty-five, close to thirty percent of students who start the ninth grade in the Shenandoah Valley aren’t graduating high school in four years, according to figures released by the State Department of Education on Wednesday.

But are the numbers an accurate reflection of how many children are being left behind by the public-education system?

“That’s a trick question. Isn’t that amazing?” said Robin Crowder, the superintendent of schools in Waynesboro, in an interview with The New Dominion Magazine for a Special Report that will run in the Fall 2008 issue that will hit newsstands later this month.

The trick to the question is that the new measures from the state are just another to add to the pile of data that give a conflicting view on how many kids are graduating and how many kids are dropping out of school. For example, there is another measure that looks at the number of students in grades 7-12 who actually drop out during the school year that runs in the 2 to 3 percent range for area school systems, said Augusta County school superintendent Gary McQuain, which McQuain points out is also a bit misleading because “you don’t see many seventh-graders drop out of school.” And another measure, the traditional one used for years by school systems to determine graduation rates, looks simply at the number of students who start the 12th grade and end up graduating the next June, which Crowder said is generally in the 97 to 98 percent range at Waynesboro High School annually and is close to that area in school systems statewide.

Which brings us back to our question – how many kids are being left behind?

“The graduation rate, for as long as I’ve been in educational research, has been very much a mystery, because nobody keeps very good records,” said Walt Heinecke, an education researcher based at the University of Virginia. “So we don’t know really oftentimes why someone who starts off as a freshman doesn’t graduate as a senior four years later – because we don’t know if they’ve transferred, if they’ve gone to another public school, gone to a private school, or dropped out,” Heinecke said.

And that means that school systems are being held accountable for matters that are sometimes outside their control. In Harrisonburg, for instance, where 40 percent of the student population is made up of English as a second language students, “We have a large number of students who when they leave us let us know that they’re moving back to their native country, whether it be El Salvador or Honduras or Mexico. Our problem is being able to account for them,” said Mike Loso, the assistant superintendent for instruction in the Harrisonburg city school system. “The normal, and I don’t know if I want to call it normal, maybe the typical procedure for a school system, is for a student to say, I am leaving your system and going to school system X in such-and-such city. Normally with a school system in the U.S., we receive records from that school system, and we can track students that way. Our issue is that we do have a number of our students who leave stating they’re leaving for another country, and we very seldom get requests from other countries for our records. So that poses a unique difficulty for us,” Loso said.

The report card issued yesterday by the Department of Education is an attempt to improve upon the system in that it is a direct track of students who entered the ninth grade in the 2004-2005 school year and thus would have been on schedule to graduate in the spring of 2008. “That, I have to say, is a positive development, because now we’ll be able to figure out in a more systematic fashion when kids started and when they finished and why they did or didn’t finish in four years,” Heinecke said. But Crowder was among those who cautioned that not even the attempt at providing data specific to individual students should be considered 100 percent reflective of what is going on in local schools. “We have lots of kids who may take longer than four years. Which doesn’t mean they don’t graduate. We had a debate here the other day. The question was, Why are we almost a hundred kids different from our freshman class last year to our freshman class this year? What we actually have discovered is we think that 15 to 20 percent of those kids were actually here last year, and they’re still classified as freshmen because they haven’t earned enough credits to be classified as sophomores,” Crowder said.

“We have a number of young people that are making progress and doing well for whom it takes five years,” Staunton schools superintendent Steve Nichols said. “For example, we have a number of English as a second language students and special-ed students who are working hard and making progress and eventually will get a diploma. We need to be certain what the playing field looks like, what are the rules,” Nichols said.

As imperfect as even this new measure might be, Heinecke wants to view it as a step in the right direction. “My biggest concern is that I think the state has a great system for figuring out why kids are dropping out, but they need to stop making assumptions and find out what the real reason is,” Heinecke said. “So the good news is that the state has this tracking system now, and if you were to do a good study on this, you could weed out the kids that transferred or moved out of state or went to private school, and you could focus on the subset of kids that stayed in a particular school district and didn’t finish. And then you could go back, and this would be my advice as a researcher, you could go back and talk to those kids and their families, and find out what the real reasons are for dropping out.
“Instead of penalizing the school for the dropouts, I think we really need to use the system to our advantage for some high-quality research, find out what the problems are, and then adapt our policies to reflect what the causes of the dropout problem are,” Heinecke said. “One of the causes of the dropout problem may be the SOL curriculum itself. It may be very low level and stultifying and rather rote, and the kids might be dropping out because they’re bored, or school has no meaning to them. Another problem may be they’re not getting the social services they need. But all these potential problems really need to be identified with the subpopulation that we should be focused on, the kids who don’t transfer to another school either in-state or out-of-state and kids who don’t transfer to private schools,” Heinecke said.

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