22 Washington schools labeled ‘dropout factories’

SEATTLE — In about 7.6 percent of Washington’s 290 high schools, 40 percent of the students enrolled as freshmen don’t make it to their senior year.

The 22 schools in Washington that researchers call “dropout factories” are spread throughout the state, but are found mostly in poor rural and urban school districts. Every comprehensive high school in Tacoma made the list, but none in Seattle or Spokane did.

Arlington High School loses about 30 percent of its population every year — and also gains a third — mostly because of transfers, but dropouts do make an impact, said Warren Hopkins, deputy superintendent in the Arlington School District.

Arlington High made the list prepared for The Associated Press by researchers at Johns Hopkins University using information provided by the U.S. Education Department. Thanks to improvement in student retention over the past few years, Arlington looks to be working its way off the list.

At about 12 percent of high schools nationwide, the senior class is made up of 60 percent or fewer of the class that entered as freshmen. Washington state is in the middle of the list with 7.6 percent of its high schools ranked by Johns Hopkins as “dropout factories.”

Most of the “dropout factories” across the nation are in large cities or high-poverty rural areas and most have high proportions of minority students. Arlington doesn’t exactly fit that description: It’s a suburb of Everett, 87 percent of its students are white and nearly 20 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Hopkins credits two programs for the improvement in Arlington: the freshman academy and the link crew program. Both are aimed at helping freshmen and new students get a good start.

“A much better percentage are staying on track and graduating, keeping up with classmates and earning reasonable GPA’s,” Hopkins said. “When you catch them right at the start of high school, that has a powerful impact on their understanding the need and value of education.”

Students who struggled academically in middle school are assigned to the freshman academy for their four core classes, where they get extra help with their school work and intensive counseling about how to succeed in school.

The link crew is a student-to-student buddy program designed to help new kids find their place in the building of more than 1,600 students.

“A sense of belonging is crucial to academic success,” Hopkins said.

The third program that has helped improve student retention in Arlington was not designed with that in mind. A few years ago, a cross burning on a minister’s lawn, which was not directly related to the school, led students at all of Arlington’s schools to organize “respect teams” and a districtwide respect conference.

Hopkins said the program has given students another reason to connect to each other, which has become another motivation for staying in school.

A Seattle Public Schools official couldn’t pinpoint why his district managed to stay off the list of “dropout factories,” but he had a few ideas.

Some Seattle high schools — Rainier Beach, Cleveland and Chief Sealth high schools — have hired dropout prevention specialists, who knock on parents’ doors, talks to kids and work with law enforcement to combat truancy, said Ballard High School Principal Phil Brockman, who was the district’s interim high school director for six months.

Several Seattle high schools have special programs to reach out to families, such as Latino support programs at Ballard and Chief Sealth high schools and the black achievers programs at four schools.

“When you have dedicated staff … that’s where we see real progress,” Brockman said. He also mentioned on-campus social workers as a key to keeping some of the neediest kids in school.

Dollars for staff seem to be the key to dropout prevention, Brockman said, and that money isn’t always available or is used for other things like shrinking class sizes.

He said he believes student retention may get worse, not better, in the near future because of an ever-increasing problem with drug and alcohol abuse and because 2008 is the first year students are required to pass part of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning to graduate.

About 100 students at Ballard High School are in danger of not graduating because of the WASL, said Brockman, who believes some of those kids will not stay in school despite all the ways the district is supporting them to meet the standard and get their diploma.

Brockman said he is especially concerned about students for whom English is not their first language.

“To expect students to reach the standard in four years where everybody else has had 12 years … there’s a big gap there,” he said.

He said lots of kids need more help academically and socially, but Washington schools do not have enough money.

“It’s pretty tough right now to offer the extra assistance when we don’t have the resources,” he said.

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