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Schools seek ways to curb dropouts

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com · 340-2432

School systems spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to keep students in school and aiding them in their quests for diplomas.

They have last-chance schools for students facing expulsion, summer and night schools for students who fail or fall behind, ninth-grade academies to keep students on grade level, graduation exam tutoring programs and much more.

Yet, students still quit school at an alarming rate. Only five of 22 area schools had a graduation rate of 90 percent or better on the state’s 2005-06 report card, the latest statistics available. (The state will not release test scores for 2006-07 until Aug. 6.) Mount Hope, one of the area’s smallest schools, was the only school with 100 percent.

A recent study by the Educational Testing Service said one-third of the nation’s students will quit school.

Morgan County Learning Center Principal Layne Dillard’s job is dealing with the county’s at-risk students. While most of her students are there for discipline issues, she works with some who are struggling academically. Both groups are considered at risk for dropping out.

“There are so many variables,” Dillard said. “It seems like every dropout has a different personal reason.”

Austin Principal Don Snow said it’s difficult to track students after they drop out. Most schools try to interview dropouts to find out their reasons and try to change their minds.

Falkville High Principal Sue Wood spent the last several years fighting to keep students from quitting, and improved her schools’ graduation rates. Falkville had a 71 percent on the 2005-06 report card, but she said that has improved for the upcoming report card.

“How we save kids and what we do to make them successful is something I’m very passionate about,” Wood said. “I’ll do whatever it takes, short of breaking the law, to help these kids.”

Top reasons for quitting

Among the main reasons local educators say students quit school:

  • A general dislike for school.

  • Apathy. Wood said some students “just don’t care.”

  • A lack of parental support. In a March 1, 2006, USA Today article, 68 percent of students in a survey of dropouts said their parents became more involved in their education only when they were on the verge of quitting.

    “Nine out of 10 times, Mom and Dad are not involved,” Snow said.

  • Disciplinary problems lead to expulsion or the student quitting. Every school system in the area offers an alternative school for students in frequent trouble or who committed a grievous infraction as a last chance before a school board expels them from school.

  • They fall behind due to failing, sickness or family issues.

    Educators said students who realize they won’t graduate with classmates their age are likely to quit school.

    If a student fails or doesn’t get credit for a class, he can take summer school to make up the work.

    But if a student fails more than two high school classes, educators said, it’s difficult
    to catch up and graduate on time.

    Decatur offers Horizon High, an academic alternative school where students can take up to two additional core classes at night to gain the needed credits.

    Students can get up to four credits in Horizon’s summer school program.

    Phil Hastings, supervisor of safety and alternative education, said Horizon has 15 to 20 graduates a year.

    “That’s 15 to 20 students who were at risk of dropping out,” Hastings said.

    Ninth-grade Academy

    Three years ago, Decatur started the Ninth-grade Academy at Horizon with the goal of catching up students who fell behind in middle school before they enter high school.

    Hastings said that, if a 16-year-old is still in middle school, he’s more likely to drop out.

    The academy puts these students in a high school setting and gives them more individual attention so they can get back on grade level and return to Austin or Decatur high schools.

    Morgan County doesn’t have a Horizon-like school, although Dillard would like to bring in more academically struggling students to the learning center.

    The county is beginning to use a new distance learning program called Alabama Connecting Classes for Educators and Students Statewide as a catch-up tool.

    “ACCESS has been a savior for some,” Wood said.

  • They don’t feel like they fit in at school. Wood started a program at Falkville that pairs every teacher and administrator with 12 to 15 students in seventh grade.

    Each educator then builds a relationship with each student and follows that student through graduation, providing academic or personal help whenever needed.

  • A student gets pregnant. Dillard said some quit during the pregnancy, but a majority quit after the child is born and the girl finds out how difficult motherhood is.

    The learning center is starting a program that will allow them to continue with their education while helping them with motherhood.

    “We probably have about 25 a year, and that’s a group that we know we can help and possibly keep in school,” Dillard said.

  • A student’s abilities are not suited for academic requirements of the state’s curriculum. Wood said some have a tough time in class, but they’re excellent with their hands.

    She said they do well in the vocational technology program like the one at Brewer High.

    “There are kids who struggle in high school and then do wonders in Calhoun or Wallace State (community colleges) technical programs,” Wood said.

    “Sometimes I think this where we’re doing the kids a disservice. Not everyone is suited for college.”

    So do all of these programs work

  • Decatur Superintendent Sam Houston believes they do, but educators continue to look for new ideas until no students quit school.

    “If we lose one student to withdrawal, that’s one too many,” Houston said. “Our job is to find new and better ways to help these students.”

    Dropping out

    A study of students who drop out showed:

  • From 1990 to 2000, the high school completion rate declined in all but seven states. In 10 states, it declined by 8 percentage points or more.

  • In high school completion rates, the United States has now slipped to 10th place in the world.

  • On average, only one certified counselor is available for each 500 students in all schools, and one counselor to 285 students in high schools. And they have many assignments that leave little time to spend with students at risk of dropping out. The ratio is higher for minority students.

  • A “bulge” in enrollments in Grade 9 indicates more students nationally are being flunked to repeat Grade 9. This may be reflected in the significant shift toward younger, less educated dropouts than in the past. They tend to have more difficulty in getting jobs.

  • In 1971, male dropouts earned $35,087 (in 2002 dollars) working full time, falling to $23,903 in 2002. This is a 35 percent decline in earnings. Earnings for female dropouts fell from $19,888 to $17,114.

    Source: Educational Testing Service

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