Half of Urban High School Students Don’t Graduate, Study Finds

A recent study by Colin and Alma Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance found that fully half of high school students in the nation’s 50 largest cities leave high school without a diploma.

The foundation offers a number of strategic foci, including promoting supportive relationships with adults, early intervention, and and an emphasis on marketable skills. The Alliance also has a public-policy wing called First Focus.

Interestingly, this study does not rely on notoriously unreliable graduation rate statistics; instead, it uses enrollment data to calculate the chances the average 9th grader has of earning a diploma. Link to study summary (PDF)

This method for calculating graduation rates is called the Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI), and is calculated as follows:
Cumulative Promotion Index

The CPI has several apparent advantages over other means of determining dropout rates:

  • It does not rely on wildly varying district dropout data (for example, some districts only count a dropout if the student fills out a form expressing his or her intent to drop out, and does not count the student as a dropout if they simply stop attending)
  • It accounts for changes in the enrollment of the district, so it’s more accurate than simply dividing the number of diplomas issued by the number of enrolled 9th graders
  • It incorporates data from each stage of advancement in a high schooler’s career, from 9th to 10th to 11th to 12th to graduation

The data are sobering: barely half of students in core urban districts graduate, while their suburban peers graduate at much higher rates – approaching double in some cases.

The report concludes:

If three out of every 10 students in the nation failing to graduate is reason for concern, then the fact that just half
of those educated in America’s largest cities are finishing high school truly raises cause for alarm. And the much
higher rates of high school completion among their suburban counterparts – who may literally live and attend
school right around the corner – place in a particularly harsh and unflattering light the deep undercurrents of
inequity that plague American public education. (PDF)

Indeed. If ever we needed a reminder of the seriousness of the challenges we face in urban education, the time is now, and this is the data we need.

Disciplinary Alternative Programs Used for Nonviolent Offenses, Study Finds

A study by Texas Appleseed, a “non-profit, public interest law organization,” reports that many students are being sent to alternative schools for minor, nonviolent infractions. The report, entitled Keeping Schools Safe While Reducing Dropouts: Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline, asserts that zero-tolerance policies are inappropriately funneling students into alternative programs, which have a dropout rate five times that of a traditional school.

As the report’s title indicates, there is a strong correlation between being sent to an alternative school for disciplinary reasons and being sent to prison. However, school administrators have significant discretion in sending students with nonviolent behaviors to these programs. As the following chart shows, the majority of Disciplinary Educational Alternative Program (DAEP) referrals are for nonviolent offenses:

graph showing that vast majority of referrals are for discretionary, nonviolent offenses

According to the Houston Chronicle, referrals to DAEPs disproportionately affect students of color and students in special education programs. In some districts such as Pasadena (a suburb of Houston), students in kindergarten or first grade are sent to alternative placements:

Suburban districts tend to be the most the most punitive, said Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed legal director.

Of these, the Pasadena Independent School District was one of the harshest.

It is the only district in Texas to appear on the report’s Top 10 districts with the highest alternative school referral rates each of the last five years. Houston-area school districts that made multiple Top 10 appearances in the past five years also include Galveston (twice), Spring Branch (twice) and Katy (three times).

“These numbers indicate that it is not the behavior that determines whether a student is referred to a (district alternative education program),” the report’s authors wrote. But rather, “it is, in large part, the district where the child goes to school.”

Other districts were spotlighted for sending black or special education students to alternative schools for nonviolent, noncriminal offenses at at least twice the rate of other students for the past five years. They include Humble, Klein, Katy, Pearland, Tomball, Goose Creek, College Station, Bryan and Huntsville. link

While clearly this is an embarrassment for the districts named in the Chronicle article, there are several implications for school leaders:

  • We must do whatever we can to reduce racial and socioeconomic disproportionality in discipline referrals
  • We need to create schools where students are set up for success and safety, not assume that kids will need to be sent to alternative schools
  • We need to create systems and structures to promote positive behavior, not just systems for punishing negative behavior efficiently
  • For the small number of children who cannot be successful or safe in a regular school environment, we need to create alternative schools where students can become successful, not take the next step down the path to prison

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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