Saturday, November 17, 2001

Student dropout rates in the District’s public schools fell between the 1997-98 and 1998-99 school years, but remain among the highest in the country, according to a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics.
The District’s annual dropout rate for grades 9 through 12 fell from 12.8 percent to 8.2 percent, according to the report released this week. The District ranked behind Louisiana, which had a dropout rate of 10 percent, and Arizona, where 8.4 percent of the students dropped out during the school years studied by educators.
The District’s dropout rates are not high when compared to other urban school districts, said Ralph Neal, assistant superintendent for school and support services in the District.
His office presented dropout rates different from those reported by the national center: 9.6 percent in 1997-98, dropping to 6.19 percent in 1998-99 and rising again to 6.8 percent in 1999-2000.
But dropout numbers put out by school districts are often wrong, observers say. “School systems have neither the resources nor incentives to find dropouts. It is not their mission and so they have a hard time finding the numbers. Their numbers are just based on their efforts to track students,” said Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Police Research. Mr. Greene earlier this week released his own analysis of high school graduation rates in the country.
Public school officials in the city said they had taken several steps to curb truancy and control dropout rates in schools, ranging from auto-dialing machines that automatically contact parents about a child’s absence, to arrangements with the metropolitan police to protect areas where children might feel threatened while walking to and from school.
Mr. Neal cited several reasons for dropout rates. “In urban school districts you have children who have to get younger siblings ready to go to school, or lack the parental support to attend school and consequently drop out.
Some students do not have the proper nutrition, proper clothing. It could be various reasons,” he said.
Veronica Roberts, a senior research associate for the city’s public schools, said the District plans a study to find out the causes for dropout rates. “We have to take the 1,484 students who dropped out in 1999-2000 and invest in them by calling up parents, finding out where the students are, why they’re dropping out,” she said.
Typically, Mr. Neil said, dropout rates were higher among middle school and high school students because of lack of parental control over these age groups.
Meanwhile, the report from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research released this week by the District-based Black Alliance for Educational Options showed the District has an even higher dropout rate than that reported by the national center 40 percent during the 1998 school year.
The District ranked 26th among the 50 largest school districts, with a graduation rate of 60 percent. The Baltimore City Public School system ranked lower with a 54 percent graduation rate, while Fairfax and Montgomery counties had the highest graduation rates in the country 87 percent and 85 percent respectively.
Prince George’s County ranked eighth in the country, with a graduation rate of 79 percent.
Mr. Greene said the dropout rates put out by the national center were underreported and were based on a single year: 1997-98 versus 1998-99.
He, on the other hand, counted the number of eighth-graders in public schools in the 1993-94 school year and compared it with the number of high school diplomas issued in their graduation year of 1997-98 to arrive at what he says are more accurate numbers.
“It is a huge problem if the education system can’t provide us with credible statistics on high school graduation rates. It is a shame because high school graduation rates are an important indicator of test scores and are strongly related to life’s outcomes,” he said.
Kaleem Caire, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said it was alarming that the District had such low graduation rates.
“The problem with this is that the District will not be able to produce people who can take up quality jobs and others will come in from outside to take them,” he said. “A bunch of carpetbaggers will lead the community.”
The state of the school system and the city’s high poverty level were to blame, he said. “DCPS has tons of issues, like decision-making problems, spending money the wrong way. It creates an environment where academic achievement is not a child’s primary motivation.”

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