Idaho once took some solace in its high school graduation rate.
No, our education spending may not have been as high as many would like. And sure, the go-on rate to college of high school seniors was in the cellar compared to other states. And yes, many of those students needed remediation in math and English to compete once they did get to college.
But that high school graduation rate — 91.7 percent for 2008-2009 — made the state feel its schools were accomplishing something.
It turned out to be a mirage.
In 2010-11, the state began following federal graduation reporting standards based on the number of students who started ninth grade and the number who graduated four years later. That system takes into account students who move in and out of a district.
Idaho was one of the last states in the country to get a tracking system that allowed the state Department of Education to make the calculation on graduation rates, state department officials say. Idaho reported its first graduation rate under the more accurate system last year for the 2013-2014 school year.
Idaho’s graduation rate plummeted to 77.3 percent.
The new rate left Idaho tied with Colorado for ninth-lowest graduation rate among states and the District of Columbia, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education report.
A graduation rate of 77 percent doesn’t mean that 23 percent dropped out. The actual rate of students designated as “dropouts” for the class of 2013-2014 was 2.9 percent. Some of those 23 percent are students who work to complete their degree beyond four years, get a GED or are special education students who can stay in the system until they are 21. And included in that 23 percent are students who left a district and no one knows where they went next, state education officials say.
So the two graduation rates don’t allow an apples-to-apples comparison. But such a dramatic difference — 15 percentage points, to nearly one in four students not graduating — was unnerving to Idaho education and political leaders.
Lawmakers go into the 2016 legislative session Monday with new graduation rates hanging over them.
“We’ve been told, at least for the years I have been in the Legislature, we have a very high school-graduate rate, but we have a low rate going on to college,” said Brent Hill, Idaho Senate president pro tem, said Thursday. “That’s where we are tying to put our emphasis. So I think this has caught us a little off guard.”
House Speaker Scott Bedke said he’s skeptical about the new rates and wants more information on how they were compiled. But if true, he said, “it should trigger a state response in an affirmative way.”
Gov. Butch Otter hinted that he’ll offer proposals for boosting the graduation rate, but declined to give details before his State of the State address Monday.
PERSONAL, ECONOMIC EFFECTS
The effect of students not finishing high school is far-reaching: There is the personal wreckage of ill-prepared students heading off into the workplace and facing a tough time getting a job. And it’s yet one more drag on generating an educated workforce that could command higher wages in a state at the bottom of the nation’s pay scale.
“The level of skills in our workforce will be our No. 1 concern for our economy to grow over the next decade,” said Jeff Sayer, whose last day as director of the Idaho Department of Commerce was Thursday. “If our kids aren’t even finishing high school, it puts us that much further behind.”
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE NEXT?
“Obviously we are not pleased with the number,” said Richard Westerberg, a State Board of Education member. “It cries out for some action.”
Westerberg expects the State Board of Education to take a deep dive into the graduation numbers to find more about who is graduating and who is not. Are girls dropping out more than boys? Is the rural graduation rate higher or lower than the urban rate?
“Once we understand that, we can figure out the why,” he said.
Before Idaho can come to any conclusions about the graduation rate, said Sherri Ybarra, state superintendent of public instruction, it needs another year of data. Numbers for the 2014-2015 school year could be available by spring, state education officials say. “This is just baseline data,” she said.
Nonetheless, the nearly one in four students not graduating on time is sobering, she said. “You kind of stand up and take notice.”
Ybarra hopes the Legislature will provide $1.75 million this year to pay for a program to put mentors into schools as early as the eighth grade to help students stay in school and think about education after graduation. The plan is part of Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education and was approved by the Legislature last year. Money could be available for districts that come up with research-based mentor plans for students.
WHAT ARE SCHOOLS DOING?
Throughout the Treasure Valley high schools deploy a variety of programs to keep students from walking out the door. Some examples:
▪ Columbia High School, Nampa School District:
Student are learning that high school isn’t the end of education. “We we are trying to do our very best to think beyond graduation,” said Cory Woolstenhulme, principal. Students are required to take a class that helps them see the vision beyond a high school diploma and Columbia has hired college and career counselors to help students think about education options after graduation.
Columbia holds college and career fairs at the school where students can talk to people form the world of education and the workplace.
The school built flex time into its curriculum. The school works with students to get their work completed. Students meet with teachers through the day, for lessons as well as help when they struggle. They’ll get a note from the teacher inviting them to come by for a visit.
The changes are new to Columbia, so it’s too early to say what it means for the graduation rate.
“Anecdotally, we’re seeing an effect,” Woolstenhulme said. “They are not giving up if they see they can get their stuff done.”
▪ Vallivue High School, Vallivue School District:
Vallivue is working to connect kids to education through advanced-placement and dual-credit programs that can put college credits in students’ pocket before they even get a high school diploma. College credit programs can save students “thousands of dollars” in college costs and make post-high school education more financially possible, said Connie Benke, a Vallivue High School guidance counselor.
In 2006-2007, students at Vallivue High School earned 223 in college credits. In 2014-2015, the number rose to 2,746 in college credit.
With that kind of investment in their education, Benke said, “leaving is less of an option.”
BUT IS IT ENOUGH?
Schools throw a lot of resources at their drop-out problems, said Sandy Addis, National Dropout Prevention Center director. “No one size fits all,” he said. “What works in the Mississippi Delta may not work in inner-city Detroit.”
For many people, dropping out is seen as a school problem. But it’s really a community issue, Addis said.
Graduation rates change “when a community, the mayor, the chamber, get serious about it and start changing the messages,” Addis said. And that message is: “We are saying to kids: You grow up here, you graduate. That is what we do.”
BULLISH ON GRADUATING
Addis points to the Hart County Charter System, a school district of about 3,400 students in rural northeast Georgia about two hours from Atlanta. Eight years ago the graduation rate was 68 percent. And a large share of the students were dropping out in ninth grade.
The schools and the community got together to address the problem. They adopted a single value: Finish what you start.
Those words made it into storefronts around Hartwell, Ga., and onto the school district’s website. The mascot is a “grad dog” — a bulldog wearing a mortar board.
School officials carried the message to lower classes, where students were given T-shirts with their graduation year printed on them, said Jay Floyd, superintendent.
A week before graduation, seniors wear their caps and gowns to the elementary school to show kids that they really can graduate.
Along with community support the school district is developing special programs in several elementary schools and pushing college and career readiness and agricultural research in upper grades.
Eight years later, the graduation rate is 93 percent.
“Education has become something that is very important,” Floyd said.
Idaho graduation percentage rates: 2013-2014
▪ White: 79.2
▪ African/American: 75
▪ Economically disadvantaged: 71.3
▪ Hispanic: 70.3
▪ Native American: 56.3
Source: Idaho State Department of Education
Why students drop out?
▪ Fall behind in their classes and are overwhelmed. Connie Benke, a Vallivue High School guidance counselor, calls it “learned hopelessness.”
▪ Don’t see the value in schoolwork. Sixty percent of students gave that as a reason for considering to drop out of school in a 2006 national survey on student engagement.
▪ Have family issues, including having to go to work to help support the family.
▪ Don’t see an immediate benefit for what they are doing.
▪ Don’t feel a connection to the school through clubs or extracurricular activities.
Source: Statesman research
Tell us why you dropped out
If you dropped out of high school, we would like to hear from you. Did you go on to college, go back to high school or move into the workplace? What was your experience like? What advice do you have for others?
Contact Statesman reporter Bill Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org or 208-377-6408.