September 4, 2008

West Contra Costa Dropout Rate Soars

By Kimberly S Wetzel; Katy Murphy

California's future may not be so bright after all.

Nearly one in four students drops out of school, according to a new analysis of dropout data released Wednesday by the State Department of Education.

The four-year derived dropout rate, based on the 2006-07 school year, is an estimated 24.2 percent. More than 67 percent of the state's public school eligible students graduated and 8 percent of students -- such as those who seek GEDs -- are considered neither dropouts nor graduates. The dropout figure has alarmed state education leaders, who said that something must be done to keep students engaged in learning.

"Twenty-four percent of students dropping out is not good news," state education chief Jack O'Connell said at a Wednesday news conference. "In fact, any student dropping out of school is one too many. This is data-rich information that will be a powerful tool to better target resources, assistance and interventions to keep students in school and on track."

In the past, it has been difficult to determine how many of the state's students drop out of school. All students recently were assigned identification numbers to help track their whereabouts in the educational system. The result is more accurate data but also higher dropout rates than previously thought.

"For too long, we had to rely on complicated formulas to make educated guesses about how many students were graduating and how many were leaving school without a diploma," O'Connell said. "Using student-level data, we can improve the accuracy of our count of how many students drop out, increase accountability and focus on preventing dropouts."

The state dropout average is higher than in Contra Costa County, where 21.5 percent of students do not finish school, and Alameda County, where the dropout rate hovers around 19 percent. More than 30 percent of Solano County's high schoolers drop out.

Some East Bay school districts' rates soared much higher than that state average: About 40 percent of Vallejo and West Contra Costa County district students drop out, and more than 37 percent of Oakland students leave school, according to four-year averages calculated by the state.

Antioch Unified hovered about 31 percent, and Pittsburg came in with a rate of about 29 percent. "It's disappointing, but they are what they are," said West Contra Costa Associate Superintendent Wendell Greer, who was surprised by the numbers. "We're developing strategies to meet the needs of our kids."

Mt. Diablo Unified School District Student Services Director Margot Tobias said she is excited that the data shed light on why students drop out and where they go. Mt. Diablo's dropout rate, 22 percent, was just under the state average.

"As long as students stay in the state, we'll be able to track where they're going," Tobias said. "This has been years in coming to fruition."

Two years ago, California assigned every public school student a unique state ID number in order to track their progress, regardless of where in the state they moved. If a student vanishes from Oakland High School, for example, and turns up in Los Angeles Unified a month later, that student will no longer be considered a dropout. The system does not track students who move out of the state or country.

Orlando Ramos, principal of West Contra Costa's Richmond High School, said California's inability to track students outside of the state poses a problem for his staff and likely contributes to the high dropout rate in the district. More than 40 percent of the district's students are Latino, and some are not legal citizens. Many move out of the state or country, dropping off the map and counting against the school as a dropout when they could be attending school elsewhere.

"A lot of our students end up going to South and Central America, so it becomes very difficult," Ramos said. "We can't locate them, so we have to put them down as dropouts when they aren't necessarily dropouts at all."

Unlike previous reports, which account only for graduates and dropouts, the new data system includes other categories: students who are still preparing for the high school exit exam, for example, or who are enrolled in an adult school.

Dozens of states already use the same method, which was encouraged in a graduation compact signed by all 50 governors in 2005. It is widely considered the only way to accurately gauge what happens to high school students, particularly in areas with high levels of mobility. The governors' compact followed a high-profile study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project that concluded California was reporting an unrealistically high graduation rate.

Kevin Smith, who conducts data analysis for the Oakland school district, said he welcomed the influx of accurate information. "It's always been very, very difficult to accurately gauge how many students dropped out," he said. "Especially in a district like Oakland that has a high rate of mobility, students disappear on us."dropout data:-- What: New dropout data at the state, county and district level can be found at

Originally published by Kimberly S. Wetzel and Katy Murphy, staff writers.

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