15 May 2009

Denver Dropouts Are Usual Suspects

It is hardly surprising that a John Hopkins study has shown that kids dropping out of the Denver Public Schools have disproportionately flunked classes (often starting years before), missed many days of school, are disporportinately male and disporportionately Latino. But, it never hurts to quantify more general observations.

In ninth grade, most of the dropouts had gotten at least one F in their freshman year, a third had four or more F's in a semester, and two-thirds of the dropouts had missed 20 or more days of school in the ninth grade.

When they were in sixth grade, one third of the dropouts were failing at least one course, 44 percent had missed more than 20 days in middle school, and one in five had at least one suspension in middle school.

Most of the dropouts were male, 61 percent were Latino, and 84 percent quit in high school — with more kids leaving in the ninth grade. . . .

Looking at data collected from the 3,657 students who dropped out during the 2006-07 school year:

• 77 percent had failed one or more semester courses in ninth grade

• 61 percent had missed more than 20 days of school in the year before they dropped out

• Chronic absence in the ninth-grade year was significantly higher among dropouts (60 percent) than non-dropouts (44 percent)

• 10 percent had been suspended at least once during the two-year period 2005-07

The newspaper report doesn't cite CSAP scores as a risk factor, but other studies at DPS have shown that kids who fail to score proficient on CSAP tests in elementary school are at grave risk of not catching up, and at highly elevated risk of dropping out.

Other studies have shown that dropping out of high school is a ticket to time in the criminal justice system, lifelong high rates of unemployment, and dead end low income jobs even when work is secured. Not even the Army wants high school dropouts.

The John Hopkins study also doesn't talk about another classic high school dropout profile - the teenaged girl who gets pregnant, has a baby and doesn't stick with school, although there is certainly overlap. Poor future educational and work prospects are closely associated with teen pregnancy.

Barely Crossing The Line

As Patricia Calhoun at Westword noted this week, only a small share of students who start high school in DPS high schools like North, which serve mostly lower income students from Northeast Denver, graduate. About 50 of the 180 North High seniors who did graduate apparently didn't attend school at least 85% of the time in their senior year, although a last minute repreive triggered by press attention allowed these fifty to participate in their graduation ceremonies. Michael Ballez, whose case Calhoun took up to illustrate the situation, isn't exactly the kind of kid Disney will put at center stage in a new High School Musical movie either.

[T]he classmates who've dropped out, one by one, until only a handful of the kids he started with as a freshman remain in school. The pressures he's faced — and fought — to join a gang. The needs of the two little girls he's fathered. His own learning disabilities. And then keeping his grade point average high enough to play on North's baseball team all four years.

Isaiah Baca was [another] one of the students whose names disappeared. . . .

Isaiah's cousin, Tiffany Martin, is Michael Ballez's mother. When her son broke the bad news about no graduation ceremony last Friday, she couldn't believe it. "The way I see it, you're telling an eighteen-year-old kid, 'You're not good enough to participate in my ceremony,'" she told me. "When my son contacted me, he had a crackle in his voice. He's been through a lot already."

Unlike her older son, who "hung out with the wrong crowd" and dropped out of North, Michael held strong and stayed in school. "My son is not a gang member, he's not in the legal system, he's a full-time dad," Martin explained — a dad who sometimes has to stay home with sick kids. But even though he's a special-ed student, his grades were good enough for him to play baseball, and he stays on track in his classes. Martin knows, because she checks in with Michael's teacher and education case manager daily to make sure.

So she didn't hesitate to call the school to ask about this new graduation-ceremony policy. Ed Salem returned her call and told her that he'd informed the seniors of the 85 percent attendance requirement at a senior meeting a month ago.

Ballez's mother didn't give up and accept this answer. She advocated for her son -- contacting parents of other affected kids and Westword. It is likely that her pluck is the reason that all fifty of those low attendance kids will be able to attend their graduation ceremonies. Her pluck is probably one important reason that Ballez didn't give up on school when he had his first or second daughter, and the barriers posed by a learning disability -- something that isn't diagnosed for many kids.

I also wouldn't be surprised if the political instincts of, Alex Sanchez, spokesman for DPS who is one of eight candidates seeking to replace Jennifer Veiga as a state senator in a vacancy committee race on May 20, and has positioned himself as an advocate for the Latino community, has a part in the change of policy. He may have made the case that keeping graduates who low attendance from participating in graduatation was bad from a P.R. perspective to North High Principal Ed Salem, who made the initial decision, and his boss, the Denver Board of Education.

Ballez is fighting the odds to make his way into the American working class and to stay out of the American underclass. His diploma, lack of gang membership, history of sports involvement, and commitment to raise his daughters (the story doesn't say if he's together with his daughters' mother or mothers) will all help him achieve these goals. He needs someone to give him a chance, at a time when the economy is the worst it has been in his lifetime. An employer wouldn't be a fool to give him one.

Please Panic

North High Principal Ed Salem's attempt to punish seniors with low attendance doesn't come from nowhere, even though it was ill timed and counterproductive in this case. As Guerin Green at the North Denver News reported a little more than a year ago, Salem is under great pressure to turn the school around.

North High School will face redesign for the 2007-2008 school year.

Redesign is process by which Denver Public Schools attempts to “dramatically turn around a school’s performance and culture to create a rigorous academic program and a strong and intentional school climate.” In doing so, essentially the school’s entire instructional staff is fired, although they can reapply for their jobs.

DPS has been under pressure to improve performance at North, including from politicians. With the closure of Manual High School last year to facilitate its redesign, some in the community believed that North might share that fate. But with the announcement that North will be redesigned comes a commitment that the school will remain open.

DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet has argued that redesign gives the school a fresh start and opportunity to introduce a new program that didn’t exist with the on-going reform plan. The new faculty is then committed to the new program and, in theory, a new school culture. According to the district, since 2001, North has lost over 400 students, or nearly 25% of its enrollment, from 1,628 in 2001 to 1,224 in 2006.

This year’s decline was only six kids, but this includes 57 former Manual students who attend North this year. The situation for 9th graders is particularly acute. For example, the 9th grade cohort in 2002 diminished to 182 students in 2005.

In addition, North’s choice out rate has increased from 30.5% (567 students) in 2002 to nearly 45% (730 students) in 2006. This is all cause for serious concern, since enrollment declines led to a diminished academic offering at Manual and eventually to its closure. North had 733 9th graders in 2001-2002 and graduated only 206 students four years later in 2004-2005.

For North, student achievement has been an ongoing struggle. Just 17% of North students taking Advanced Placement tests for college credit succeeded, compared with 40% in the district as a whole. Few students tested as advanced in state-mandated CSAP testing; just fourteen 10th graders measured as proficient or advanced in Math in 2006; only 1 in 6 North students measured proficient or advanced in writing. North had shown real improvement in scores in recent years, but those gains weren’t determined to be sufficient.

For the first time in memory, the district put at least some of the responsibility for its woes squarely upon administrative shoulders."

Ballez and his fellow low attendance students were caught between the old system's expectations and the new, by a principal who knows from studies like the one by John Hopkins reported on above, that getting attendance up is key to reducing the phenomenally high dropout rate at North High.

Perhaps the biggest indictment of the Denver Public Schools is that it doesn't panic sooner, when failing in school and ultimately dropping out is predictable so early. While it may not be possible to tell precisely who will dropout -- people do have free will and turn themselves around -- it is possible to distinguish between kids at very high risk of dropping out from those who are extremely unlikely to do so, by late elementary school and early middle school. The District has three to six years of clear warning signs in most cases before a kid drops out. Yet, the response to this slow motion train wreck in a child's life seems very modest in most cases.

DPS does have several dozen programs designed to meet the needs of kids who are failing in school, many of which are charter schools. But, ordinary schools in poor neighborhoods with few special programs that purport to stuggle through a standard curriculum are full of kids with problems just as great who are simply muddling through, their failures not seriously addressed by both the District and their parents.

No comments: