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Given current trends, 40% of DC’s 9th-graders won’t graduate from high school on time. A new report gives us a lot of data about what lies behind that figure. Now the question is how policy-makers can use that data to improve the situation.
The report, released last week by a public-private partnership called Raise DC, reveals that a student’s characteristics in 8th grade have a lot to do with her chances of graduating on time. But some high schools do better than others at getting high-risk kids back on track. At this point, it’s still not clear how they do it, or even which high schools they are.
Eighth-graders who have special education status or limited English skills are more likely to drop out of high school, according to the report. The same is true for those who are over-age, have a lot of absences, score low on standardized tests, or fail math or English. And students who have been involved with the foster care or juvenile justice systems are also at high risk.
While it’s good to have all of this quantified, few will be surprised by these findings. The real question is what changes will emerge in response to them.
Raise DC, the partnership that announced the report, launched last year in an effort to bring rationality and a spirit of collaboration to DC’s social service sector. The idea is that government agencies and nonprofits will work together to help improve outcomes for DC’s children and youth.
The first phase of the joint effort focuses on collecting data. In addition to last week’s report on graduation rates, which was done by a consulting firm under the supervision of the Deputy Mayor for Education, Raise DC put out a baseline report card over a year ago.
One of the baseline figures was the percentage of students who graduate from high school in four years: 61%. The goal is to raise that figure to 75% by 2017.
The graduation rate study tracked about 18,000 students who were first-time 9th-graders between 2006 and 2009. The students attended either DCPS schools or one of four public charter schools: Perry Street Prep, KIPP, Maya Angelou, and Cesar Chavez.
While the report ranked high schools on how well they improved students’ chances of graduating on time, it didn’t attach school names to the results, and DC officials wouldn’t release them. But school leaders received data for their own schools, and a working session on Friday gave them a chance to begin formulating strategies to address their school’s weaknesses.
Here are some questions they and other policy-makers might want to consider:
How early should we start focusing on kids who look like they’re at risk of dropping out?
The report targets danger signs in 8th grade, but other school districts have begun looking for them even earlier. Montgomery County, for example, is now looking for red flags as early as first grade.
While no one wants to stigmatize young children, the sooner schools start focusing on problems with attendance, behavior, and coursework (the ABC’s of early warning signs), the less difficult it will be to address them.
How can we help schools that have a lot of high-risk students?
High schools that do the most to help high-risk students graduate have very few of them, according to the report. One conclusion might be that you should spread those students around, so that no school has a high concentration of them.
But that’s unlikely to happen. Of the 16 schools that did best in improving students’ chances of on-time graduation, only two were neighborhood high schools. The others were selective DC Public Schools or charters, with generally low numbers of high-risk students. You can’t just assign high-risk students to such schools.
In fact, it’s far more likely that high-risk students will be concentrated in a few schools: the report found that 50% of the students who fall off-track right away in high school attend just seven different schools.
But there’s one school, identified in the report only as “School 7,” that seems to do well despite the fact that 29% of its students are high-risk. It’s a traditional public school with a 59% graduation rate. That may not sound impressive, but it’s 20 percentage points higher than predicted, given the school’s student body. It would be nice to know what is enabling that school to achieve those results.
What can we do to reduce the number of students who switch schools?
Every time a student switches from one high school to another, the report says, his chances of graduating on time sink by 10 percentage points. And 30% of DC students switch schools at least once during their high school years.
One likely factor contributing to DC’s high student mobility is a lack of affordable housing, which can cause low-income students to move frequently or even become homeless. A study released last year revealed that thousands of students exit and enter DC public schools midyear.
This is a problem not just for those students, but also for the DCPS schools that have to take them in. The disruptive effects of that kind of student churn recently led New York City to exempt two struggling high schools from the obligation to admit students mid-year.
The bottom line is that increasing DC’s graduation rate, like other efforts directed at closing the achievement gap, is going to require more than just classroom reform. Schools can do a lot, but government agencies and non-profits will also need to address housing problems, mental health issues, and a host of other poverty-related ills.
In theory, Raise DC should make it easier to put in place the kinds of cross-sector strategies that are necessary. But it’s still too soon to tell if that theory will translate into practice.