- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Every day 18-year-old Lewiston resident Maddie Creutzberg wakes up early to care for her 5-month-old daughter, Emily, before heading to work at a local nursing home in the afternoon.

It’s far from the typical routine of a teenager. But Creutzberg, who is also married and attending a local college, is an outlier among her peers. She’s also one of the few students who graduated from Idaho Online Academy within four years.

The Department of Education released statistics revealing Idaho’s graduation rates had dropped from 88 percent in 2012-2013 school year to 77.3 percent the following year. The statistic prompted the Idaho Board of Education to investigate further, explained Blake Youde, the board’s spokesman.

The Idaho State Department of Education announced Friday, graduation rates for the 2014-2015 school year rose slightly to 78.9 percent.

The investigation revealed that Idaho’s online schools are Idaho’s worst performers, with only 20 percent of the students who started out as freshman went on to graduate as seniors. Alternative schools were the second worst, graduating only 36 percent of students in four years.

“To the board, that’s just not an acceptable outcome, regardless of what school they attended,” Youde said. “Certainly (the investigation) was not done to focus or to point a finger at any type of schooling and say it’s your fault.”

The board’s statistics revealed Idaho’s regular public high schools graduation rates were 88 percent. Public charter schools performed the best, graduating 91 percent of their students.

“I think we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture which is no one is at 100 percent,” he said. “And there are 5,000 students across the state that did not graduate; it is incumbent upon us to come up with policies to meet those students’ needs.”

However, the specific policies needed to raise those low graduation rates remains unclear, while educators scramble to understand what went wrong. Youde and other administrators say the nearly 11 percent drop to 77.3 percent is partially due to a changing metric used in measure graduation rates. This year was the first year graduation rates were measured from the entire cohort of students who start freshman year together. Before, the rates were gleaned from each senior class.

Also, the statistics don’t reflect students who take extra time to graduate, says Kelly Edginton, Head of School for Idaho Virtual Academy. She insists the measuring stick used in creating the graduation rates is flawed, not taking into account the students who come to the school already behind in their studies who may need a little extra time graduating.

“We didn’t create these kids,” Edginton said. “They are out there.”

The new graduation rate does not consider the type of students they are teaching. Furthermore, there’s a greater risk of a student being considered a drop out from an online school if they move to another state or another school.

According to school officials, most students who seek online or alternative schools are behind in their credits, have extremely low GPAs, come from impoverished backgrounds, or have special learning needs that make learning in the traditional classroom difficult.

Kim Zeydel, an award-winning math teacher and mentor at Meridian Academy, says only 67 percent of incoming freshman at her alternative schools are proficient in reading and 34 percent are proficient at math. That means most students at her school start high school not knowing how to multiply.

“We’re saving these kids; we’re helping them graduate,” she said. “But when they come to us with 5th grade level skills, you cannot expect us to graduate them in four years. For us to get them from 5th grade to 12th grade in five years, we are doing a pretty good job.”

Dustin Barrett, the school’s principal, said next year they will institute a new, mastery-based curriculum that blends online, self-motivated learning with teacher instruction. He said that gives students a stake in their own education and allows them to move at their own pace.

“Will it be perfect, right out of the gate? No,” Barrett said. “But it will be better than what we have now, even in its very first form.”

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