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Dropped out? Where the students went

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Barely half of all Rochester high-school students graduate on time, a disturbing fact that Superintendent Manuel Rivera calls "unacceptable." But contrary to public perception, that doesn't mean that the other students dropped out.

For the first time, the CitySchool District has tracked students as they entered high school as ninth graders, following their progress for four years. The district began its study in 2001, and it has now collected data for ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades. Stats on twelfth graders, students who should be graduating in June, will be available during the summer. But a report the district is calling "Project 2006" has already provided some surprising results.

While 2,594 students entered 9th grade in the 2001-2002 school year, only 1,525 of them were still in a city high school by their third year. Of the other 1,069, only 366 had completely dropped out of school: less than 15 percent of the entering class. That's nothing to brag about, but it's not out of line with national averages, particularly among urban school districts.

Another 309 students transferred to other school systems: 192 went to other public school districts in New YorkState, 14 went to private or parochial schools in the state, and 103 moved to other states.

Thirty-nine students graduated early; 256 entered a GED program, and 16 left the country --- most of them returning home to Puerto Rico. Others were expelled, were jailed, or are in a youth home or state facility.

The information is important, says Aloma Cason --- the district's IT analyst who has been working on the project since 2002 --- because the public confuses "graduation rates" and "dropout rates." They are not the same, says Cason, but they are almost always used interchangeably.

"People are always saying the district's dropout rate is so high," she says. "But the most illuminating thing for me was seeing that it is actually lower than what most people think it is. If you look at that group of 1,069 students, it's correct to say they didn't graduate. But they are not all dropouts."

District officials are studying the data to try to target help for students where and when it is needed, says Cason. In most cases, that need occurs before they reach high school.

"The school district is always getting criticized for having a high dropout rate, when the issue is really getting kids prepared for the rigors of high school," says Cason. "This is when they have their most critical testing. Truancy and dropping out are symptoms of other problems. If you know you aren't going to pass the Regents exam, why show up?"

"The data is telling us that we need to get to these kids when they are in third, fourth, and fifth grades so they will be better prepared for ninth grade," says Cason, "because by then it might be too late or too hard for some of them to get through high school in four years."

Cason also points to students who are almost impossible to categorize: they drop out and return several times, and it's hard track them. That, she says, shows that at least some students struggle with the decision and don't really want to drop out.

Dropping out should be viewed as an evolving process, according to a January 2004 report prepared for the district by The Children's Institute. It is not typically something a tenth or eleventh grader decides on the way to school one morning. The groundwork for dropping out has been laid years earlier.

The most important predictors of which students will drop out: problem behavior and grade retention, says the Children's Institute report. For example, repeating first grade increases the risk of dropping out by 300 percent, according to the report. Students who repeat one or more grades in both elementary and middle school are almost certain to drop out in high school; low reading levels are sited as the single most important cause.

But dropping out is only one of the problems. Truancy, poor attendance, high suspension rates, and behavior problems all put students at risk. Ninety-two percent of teachers surveyed recently by the Rochester Teachers Association said that student discipline is a major concern in their school. Nearly two-thirds said student behavior has worsened in the last five years, and 34 percent said they had been punched, kicked, pushed, or verbally abused by students.

In the school-district's study of students entering ninth grade in 2001, Cason reports by the end of the first year, 582 students --- one out of every four --- had been suspended at least once. And 54 percent had attendance rates of less than 94 percent. But one of Cason's more troubling discoveries: 800 of the original ninth graders had to repeat the grade. And five of the ninth graders were 17 or 18 years old, indicating they had already repeated three, possibly four grades.

Rochester School Board member Shirley Thompson, who has been following Cason's project closely, says she is concerned about the number of students who have been expelled, are in reform school, or are incarcerated. She's also concerned about the large number of students who enter a GED program.

"The track record hasn't been too good," she says. "A lot of students say they are going for their GED, but don't complete the program."

Thompson says the community must reconnect with students and their families, and learn how to make the goal of a high school and college education the highest priority. But the challenge, she says, is that many families are in crisis, with adults unable to support their children.

"When you look at these numbers, we as a community of many stakeholders need to address the challenges of having a significant portion of the population uneducated," she says.

Breaking down the dropout numbers: a diagram.

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