Three years ago Johns Hopkins University released a very controversial report, "Locating the Dropout Crisis." First written in 2004, then revised and re-released in 2007, the report targeted nearly a thousand high schools in the U.S. that consistently graduate only about half of their students. Researchers took a lot of heat for the report, from every corner of the country, including Washington, where 32 schools were identified by name as "dropout factories."
This week, a revised and updated version of that study was released, "Building a Grad Nation." The report states that Washington is one of four states that showed a substantial decline in the number of dropout factory schools. This time around only 23 schools in the state reflected a graduation rate low enough to get them on the list. Now though, researchers aren't saying which schools those are. I tried. I begged. I cajoled. Nada. They wouldn't budge. The best I could get was, "We'll be releasing an annual report in March 2011. The school names will be released then."
I went through the state's database for school-by-school graduation rates and had something akin to an "ah ha" moment. Of the schools on the Hopkins' list last time around only two still have graduation rates of less than 60-percent. I also discovered many of the state's school districts have reinvented themselves in a way that most of the kinds of kids that were in danger of dropping out of the "regular" high schools that were studied in 2004 are now being placed in alternative schools - which continue to show staggering dropout rates, many of them losing 80-percent or more of their students.
In the Tacoma School District, for example, five high schools were declared "dropout factories" in the original report. In an examination of their graduation rates now - all five would be off the list. At the same time though, the district's alternative school, Oakland, had an on-time graduation rate of just 4.2-percent in the most recent figures available. Even when students are given extra time, the extended graduation rate only goes up to about one in five students.
In the Highline School District, both Tyee and Evergreen High Schools were on the previous list. Those schools, per se, no longer exist. Highline has created education complexes on those sites with a variety of magnet and specialty schools in their place like the Arts & Academics Academy, the Academy of Citizenship & Empowerment and TEC High School. The district's alternative programs, Choice Academy and New Start, both graduate only about one in three students.
I guess this serves as another lesson - numbers only tell part of the story. Given the information above, I wonder if graduation rates have really improved all that much.