Transient population affects grad rate

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, June 13, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about area graduation rates. On Saturday: How are schools held accountable?

Why are local schools graduating fewer than 75 percent of their students on time?

That’s the question administrators at Pike County and Troy City schools face this week, and one they say doesn’t have an easy answer.

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When the Alabama Department of Education released the 2011-2012 cohort graduation rates only one school came close to the state average of 75 percent: Goshen High School at 71 percent. Pike County High School graduated only 64 percent of its class on time and Charles Henderson High School, the only school in the city district, reported a 58 percent graduation rate. Even if suspected reporting errors are addressed by the state, city school officials say the CHHS rate would increase to only about 66 percent.

As parents and taxpayers ask “why,” superintendents say the answer lies in understanding two things: the socio-economics of Pike County and the formula used by the state to determine the graduation rate.

“A lot of it is linked to poverty, and that’s one of the variables over which we have the least control,” said Dr. Mark Bazzell, superintendent of Pike County Schools.

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 27.1 percent of Pike County falls below the poverty level; the statewide average is 17.6 percent.

“Our goal is to graduate every single kid that comes into our school system,” Bazzell said. “But the challenge going in is you know that with some kids – regardless of what you do – you’re not going to be able to save them because of what’s going on in their lives.”

Dr. Judson Edwards, president of the Troy City Schools Board of Education, said while “everybody expects parents and support systems to be there for children, sometimes that’s not the case … And as a school board, we have to take this as a lesson: It’s obvious we’re going to have to do something to help these at-risk kids.”

The challenges of living in poverty translate to the classrooms, Bazzell said. “A lot of kids are at risk not because of cognitive issues. It’s things like truancy, problems at home, or kids who are living in poverty. The reality is some of these kids need to work more than they need to come to school.”

For their part, school systems attempt to intervene. At Pike County Schools, the RtI program (Response to Instruction) identifies at-risk students as early as elementary school and provides special assistance and support, including one-on-one instruction and after-school tutoring.

At the city schools, Superintendent Lee Hicks said dropout prevention planning is being reviewed and revised, with an emphasis on reaching the students through alternative programs including academies or even night courses. “We’re going to go the extra mile,” he said. “But we’ve also got to educate the families, to show them dropping out is not an option at any time. We know the quality of education a child gets in our school system is fantastic, but we need the parents to assist and to stress the importance of an education.”

But administrators caution some factors are simply beyond their control, including the formula used to calculate the cohort graduation rate. That formula, which has been adopted by all 50 states and is designed to provide an apples-to-apples comparison of graduation rates, tracks a group of students from ninth grade to on-time graduation four years later. Any students who move away and fail to provide documentation, seek a GED, fail a grade, or lose a year of progress due to illness or personal issues effectively lower the graduation rate.

“And what you’ll find that’s one of the flaws in the data is the more transient population you have, the more it counts against you,” Bazzell said. “If you can’t account for a student who’s left, that counts against you. If a student moves out of state or is home schooled, that can count against you.”

Communities such as Zion Chapel, just over the county line in Coffee County, can point to a 95 percent cohort graduation rate, but their numbers are boosted by the lack of transient population. “Is Coffee County or Zion Chapel doing anything different than we are? I doubt it,” Bazzell said. “They simply have a different starting point.”