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Schools dispute dropout report

Students are moving, not disappearing, Tampa Bay area educators contend.

By TOM MARSHALL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 31, 2007


School officials across the Tampa Bay area objected Tuesday to a national study that called many Florida high schools "dropout factories."

The researchers at Johns Hopkins University said they intended to call attention to the "harsh and unfair situation" in districts where a majority of students never graduate with a diploma. Half of all Florida high schools fall into that category, they said.

Local officials said the study, widely reported by the Associated Press, failed to account for students who move between schools or enter adult education courses. If they leave, they're counted as dropouts.

But researchers and advocates said the study is a valid measure that shows Florida high schools are in trouble.

"These students are simply disappearing, they're not just moving around," said Bethany Little, vice president for policy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, referring to the Florida numbers. "If the pattern is a straight downwards trajectory, that's telling you it's about more than mobility."

And local school leaders like Pinellas County superintendent Clayton Wilcox acknowledged that many students struggle to finish school.

"We're not satisfied at all with where we currently are," he said, describing the district's 67 percent graduation rate as "something I think about every single day."

The Johns Hopkins study compares the number of freshmen and seniors at schools between 2001 and 2006. While it didn't track whether those students actually graduated, researchers said schools that lose more than half of their freshmen class by senior year usually don't get them back by graduation.

The study identified 1,700 schools across the nation as "dropout factories" where no more than 60 percent of freshmen make it to senior year. That number included 11 schools in Hillsborough, 10 in Pinellas, seven in Pasco, and two in Hernando.

That methodology made for some stark comparisons in the Tampa Bay area, compared to the state method of figuring graduation rates.

At F.W. Springstead High in Hernando County - which has twice landed on Newsweek magazine's list of the nations' top 1,000 high schools for its large percentage of Advanced Placement students - the Hopkins study said just 41 percent of freshmen made it to graduation in 2006.

By contrast, the state reckons 73 percent of Springstead students picked up a diploma. But the state doesn't count transfer students in its graduation-rate figures, and counts as graduates those who leave the regular program but earn a high school diploma via General Educational Development GED.

Hernando officials said increased state testing has put more and more pressure on students and districts.

"We have been working to reduce our dropout rate," said student services director James Knight, describing efforts to help students catch up in summer school. "For a number of years, the state has done away with funding for summer school."

Tampa Bay schools see around 30 percent of students coming and going between schools or districts during the school year.

That's a significant challenge that should be counted, said officials in Hillsborough County.

"Did they look at mobility of the students?" said Anne Chatfield, Hillsborough's director of nontraditional programs. "That's going to affect the numbers a great deal."

The researchers didn't consider dropout rates, which measure the number of students who leave school and don't transfer to another program. In 2005-06, Hillsborough's rate was 2 percent, according to the state Education Department.

"Even though our dropout rate is low, we have one," Chatfield added. "So long as we have a dropout rate, I'm not satisfied. Neither is my superintendent, and neither is the School Board."

* * *

This isn't the first time Florida has been rapped in a national study. In 2002, it ranked dead last in a report on graduation rates by the Manhattan Institute.

Even then, Florida had the ability to track student transfers, but researchers didn't take that into account and called transfers dropouts.

State officials had the same complaint five years later, but declined to challenge the Hopkins study's basic premise.

"I am not going to sit here and say we should not be worried about dropouts," said Jay Piper, deputy commissioner of education for accountability and research. "We have a dropout problem, and it's complicated by a myriad of factors in Florida."

Sherman Dorn, an associate professor of education at the University of South Florida, described the Hopkins study as somewhat imprecise. But he said Florida goes too far in counting GED students as graduates.

"They're not counted as dropouts, but they're counted as graduates," he said. "It's like Enron accounting, except for schools. The state of Florida gives schools an incentive to push students out, (since) it improves their graduation rate. And that's wrong."

Local school officials pointed to a number of reform efforts to tackle the dropout problem.

In Pinellas and Hernando, students can take part in "credit recovery" programs to catch up with peers. And distinctions between grade levels are blurred, to lessen the stigma of falling behind. Hillsborough students can leave their home schools to attend career centers and still be counted within the school system.

Pasco officials point to special programs for students in juvenile detention, teen parents, non-English speakers and various approaches for kids identified as unmotivated.

"You're never satisfied," said Jim Davis, assistant superintendent for high, adult and alternative schools. "You do everything you can to keep kids in school. You're always finding alternative means to provide an education to students."

Times staff writers Letitia Stein, Thomas C. Tobin and Molly Moorhead contributed to this story. Tom Marshall can be reached at or (352) 848-1431.

[Last modified October 30, 2007, 23:56:19]

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