Educators target graduation rates: Striking disparity at area schools

By Deb Kollars

Bee Staff Writer

(Published June 20, 1999)


Earlier this month, Californians received some pretty grim news about the state's public school system: Just 67 percent -- two out of three -- high school students appear to be graduating.

In response, Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, has called upon districts, schools and community members to examine their local graduation rates more closely and search for ways to help more students earn a diploma.

With those thoughts in mind, The Bee has crunched the four-year graduation rates for all comprehensive high schools and school districts in the six-county Sacramento region.

A review of these local rates shows that while some area schools are succeeding in graduating large numbers of students, many others have a long way to go in this crucial measure of school success.

The Sacramento City Unified and Grant Joint Union school districts, for example, showed graduation rates of just 58 percent, with some individual schools as low as 51 percent. In Yuba County, statistics for Marysville and Lindhurst high schools suggest fewer than half the students are graduating.

"It's a serious and discouraging problem in our community, yet for years it has not been a high priority in many of our schools," said James Shelby, president of the Sacramento Urban League.

The graduation rates were calculated by comparing the number of graduates in the spring of 1998 with the number of ninth-graders enrolled in the school or district four years earlier.

Educational researchers and school statisticians are quick to point out that graduation rates should not be considered perfectly accurate reflections of student completion rates, because they do not track the progress of individual students. Many students start in one school and finish in another. Others take longer than four years to graduate. And still others complete their schooling in other ways, such as earning equivalency diplomas, entering community colleges or enrolling in adult education.

Eventually, the state plans to create a computerized student data system that would give every student an identification number and link all districts in the state, creating much more accurate graduation and dropout statistics.

But for now, Eastin and others said, the graduation rates give a strong indication that not enough students are completing high school.

In numerous interviews over the past two weeks, school leaders from Marysville to Elk Grove to South Lake Tahoe expressed concern about the region's low graduation rates and commitment to boosting them.

"Our target should be every child gets a diploma," said Richard Jukes, superintendent of the Black Oak Mine Unified School District in El Dorado County.

"It's pathetic. We're very concerned," said Francisca Miranda, associate superintendent for secondary schools in the Sacramento City school system.

The district has adopted as one of its seven "Vital Signs" goals a graduation rate of 90 percent by the year 2001. Closing the gap within that time, Miranda admitted, probably will not be possible.

"We know we won't meet that in time, but we're hoping for improvement each year that will eventually get us to that point," Miranda said.

In the coming year, Miranda said, Sacramento City is adding programs and changing the way schools and counselors interact with students who are at risk of dropping out of school. For example, the district will be asking counselors to shift to group counseling as a way to reach more students. In addition, ninth- and 10th-graders will be monitored at nine-week intervals to make sure they are keeping up with their credits, rather than waiting until the end of the school year.

Other districts also are planning to take new steps to keep more kids in school, with many focusing on younger students in grades eight and nine.

In the Washington Unified School District in Yolo County, which had a 66 percent graduation rate, the district will use new federal dollars flowing into the district to reduce class sizes in math for high school students who are behind in their studies and in danger of quitting school.

The San Juan Unified School District, where about one-quarter of ninth-graders didn't graduate four years later, plans to offer a new home-schooling program and special "Community Day" classes for expelled students. This fall, ninth-graders who are behind in their skills will be directed into intensive reading classes rather than an elective; 400 eighth-graders are in similar reading classes this summer, said Charley Berger, director of San Juan's Seven-through-Adult Division.

"We're trying to grab these kids earlier and help them get on track so high school is not such a frustrating experience," Berger said.

To raise its 77 percent graduation rate, the Elk Grove Unified School District plans to assign high school students and graduates to mentor elementary and middle school students and impress upon them the importance of sticking with school. The mentors likely will receive stipends for their efforts.

"We're going to work very hard in the next couple years to provide our younger students with mentors -- older students, college-age students and people from the community," said Dave Gordon, Elk Grove's superintendent. "The goal is to have all of our kids finishing school."

Gordon stressed that at the same time districts are working hard to raise standards and put all students through more rigorous classes.

"It's not just the rate that matters. It's also how prepared they are," agreed Karen Young, a trustee for the Sacramento City district.

One promising effort in the Sacramento area, called Operation Graduation, has helped to keep in school a number of students who might otherwise have dropped out.

Operation Graduation was begun by the Sacramento Regional Foundation, an organization that raises charitable dollars and administers grants and charitable funds. In 1995, the foundation decided to focus its discretionary funds on the area's dropout problem and set up two projects in two Sacramento high schools: Hiram Johnson High and Grant High.

Under the efforts, community groups have joined with members of the school staffs to zero in on eighth-graders who have low grades and attendance problems and are at risk of dropping out. Mentors get involved in the students' lives, helping with schoolwork, encouraging involvement in school activities and emphasizing over and over that the students are capable of succeeding. Their families also receive services and help.

The programs each cost about $60,000 a year. And records so far indicate they are working, said Catherine Minicucci, an educational consultant working on the project.

At Hiram Johnson, 75 percent of the students involved in the project in 1998-99 were still attending the school in the second semester of ninth-grade and another 20 percent were attending school elsewhere. In contrast, other students who were identified for the project but refused to join had all left Hiram Johnson within the year and 57 percent had dropped out of school altogether.

The numbers at Grant High were equally encouraging, Minicucci said. "It appears to be working. Most of the kids are still in school, although many are struggling with their grades," she said.

One of Operation Graduation's primary goals is to keep the students attending the same high school.

It's a critical goal, said Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In a new study of student mobility, Rumberger found that students who changed high schools even once were less than half as likely as stable students to graduate.

The study found that only about half of all high school changes involved families moving to new homes. In many cases, student transfers have more to do with school staff or students reacting to a negative situation -- such as fighting or poor grades.

Because mobility increases the risk of dropping out, Rumberger urged that schools and families do all they can to help students stay in the same school.

"It makes sense," agreed Mary Kathleen Kelley, special projects director for the Regional Foundation who is working on Operation Graduation. "If they're in one place for four years, they're going to be able to build stronger relationships and stability."

Several school leaders stressed that along with schools, parents also have a responsibility to do more to keep their sons and daughters in school.

Jukes, the superintendent of the Black Oak Mine district in El Dorado County, said that in his rural area, some students are growing up in homes where parents are in jail, where poverty prevails and education is not valued.

"You cannot just shackle kids to their seats," he said. "Some social conditions are beyond the control of schools or the Legislature. It's going to take partnerships with everyone -- churches, businesses, community groups -- to get a handle on this."


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