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Report: Number of D.C. 'dropout factories' soars in last decade

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Local,DC,Maryland,Education,Matt Connolly,Prince Georges County

The number of "dropout factory" high schools in the District has shot up in the past decade, defying state trends nationwide, according to a report released Monday.

The "Building a Grad Nation" 2013 report, sponsored by a group of independent education research and advocacy organizations, found that fewer than 61 percent of ninth-grade students make it to senior year in 13 D.C. high schools, up from only two in 2002.

While the list of individual dropout factory schools for 2011 was not released, independent advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education keeps data for schools as recent as 2010. That year, D.C. also had 13 dropout factories, five of which were charter schools and eight of which were traditional public schools.

Source: "Building a Grad Nation" 2013 report

Staying in school
Regional "dropout factories" -- high schools where fewer than 61 percent of students make it to senior year:
  Change in
  2002 2011 students attending
  dropout factories dropout factories dropout factories
D.C. 2 13 6,283
Maryland 17 22 5,308
Virginia 26 19 -8,075
Nationwide 292 227 - 647,661

Maryland also saw a bump, with the number of dropout factories climbing from 17 in 2002 to 22 in 2011. The results are in stark contrast to 38 states that showed improvement in the measure -- such as Virginia, which saw the number of dropout factories decline from 26 to 19 -- and four that stayed even.

The increase in low-performing schools may be partly due to an increase in schools in general, with more charters starting up in the District and some large Baltimore schools being split up into as many as four smaller ones, report co-author Joanna Fox said.

"There are a lot more high schools than there were," Fox said. "There's been a quite intense period of reform, which causes a little turbulence in the numbers."

Fox added that another underlying culprit could be poor record-keeping by past DC Public Schools officials.

"The numbers they were reporting to National Center for Education Statistics in 2002 may not have been accurate," she said. "The early numbers may be the ones that are more off. That's my initial guess."

Last year, DCPS outlined a five-year plan to increase graduation rates and combat dropouts. The plan calls for an intervention program to identify and help students who seem unlikely to graduate on time, along with summer programs for schools with struggling freshmen. The goal is to have the District-wide graduation rate reach 75 percent by 2017, up from 59 percent in 2011.

"DCPS is proactively working to identify and intervene with struggling students before they drop out, and reaching out to re-engage those students who have left school," DC Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said in an email.

In Prince George's County, home to 12 of Maryland's 32 dropout factory schools in 2010, officials are focusing on attendance and classroom engagement.

"We are really looking closely at the lack of engagement in schools by many of our youth that are impacted by habitual absences," said Daryl V. Williams, Prince George's chief of student services. "We're looking at new courses that are interesting to students, that are rigorous and are aligned to real jobs that are out in our communities."

Those techniques can be successful if implemented properly, according to Education Sector senior fellow Peter Cookson Jr. There are less obvious factors, though, that can be harder to change, he said.

"My experience in visiting schools is that schools vary a great deal on the academic climate, the importance the principal and the teachers put on academic achievement," Cookson said. "It's not just a soft sort of feeling. It's measurable."

Mary Maushard, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools, said adult involvement is also key.

"A lot of these students feel that they're anonymous," she said. "If a student can connect with one adult in the high school, whether it's the coach or the music teacher or the cafeteria lady, sometimes it is enough to get kids to say it's worth going to school."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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