Why do so many Schenectady High School students drop out?
A committee of school officials is trying to find out, by directly interviewing students, tracking data and talking with teachers about the students who stop coming to class.
Principal Diane Wilkinson showed the school board a picture of a blank face Wednesday night to describe the way the school used to think about dropouts.
Officials used to focus on numbers, not names. In the 2011 graduating class, the most recent for which cohort data was available, 23.3 percent of the students dropped out. In the 2011-2012 school year, 12 percent of the high school’s students dropped out.
Now, she said, they are focusing on the people those numbers represent.
“These are our kids and we’re very serious about understanding that,” she said. “We want to fill in the picture.”
The goal is to develop programs that are pinpointed to the problems that cause students to leave.
“What kids are we talking about?” she said. “We want to get more data to better understand who the dropouts are, put faces to the data.”
The committee has a long way to go, she added. So far they know that pregnancies and full-time jobs are the most common reasons that first-time dropouts give for leaving school. Many other students vanish without explanation.
“We lose kids over the summer. They just leave. We also lose a lot after April break,” said Karen Swain, the district’s assistant director for planning and accountability.
Students also leave for GED programs — which counts as a dropout in state records, Swain said. But those dropouts are counted differently by the state in final calculations.
School officials are trying to track down recent dropouts, ringing their doorbells and visiting them in jail. In each case, they try to persuade them to come back. Those that do find a more welcoming atmosphere, Wilkinson said.
She decided it didn’t make sense to punish those students with out-of-school or in-school suspension, the normal punishment for truancy.
“We’ve got to find a different way,” she said.
Board member Ann Reilly told her she was on the right track.
“That makes sense, not to punish them, otherwise they’re not going to come back again,” Reilly said.
The county Probation Department also started working with the district’s attendance deans this year, intervening with truant students as young as elementary school.
Attendance Dean Matt Van Dervoort told the board that getting probation involved was a huge improvement. The officers treat students according to their age, he added, explaining that they try to “build a bond” with elementary students while threatening punishment when eighth graders skip school.
He tries to solve each dropout’s problems with getting an education, whether that means encouraging them to get their GED or to meet with a tutor until they can come back to class.
Some students are receptive to getting tutoring after giving birth, but many didn’t know they had that option, he said.
He also talks students into accepting tutoring while in jail.
Superintendent Laurence Spring said he’s also added a data counter to all administrator’s desktop computers, which monitors attendance in real time. They can see how many students, at each school, are maintaining at least a 90 percent attendance rate.
Some elementary schools are doing much better than others, and principals are starting to ask each other for tips.
“Yates has a very high percentage of students attending 90 percent or more,” Spring said. “It’s starting some great conversations.”
The students who are seniors this year were freshmen when the district changed its ninth grade program to get better graduation results, on the theory that most dropouts don’t pass ninth grade.
Wilkinson said it’s too early to know how those students will do, but she’s gathering data on them now. She will report back this summer, after the Regents exams.
But the numbers from the 2011 graduating class indicate that many students are staying in school even though they failed a grade, rather than simply dropping out.
In that class, 57.5 percent graduated, and another 2 percent completed special education school-completion goals, called IEPs. Those don’t count as part of the graduation rate, but are seen as a success for those students.
Three percent of the class transferred to GED programs, and 13.3 percent failed a grade but stayed in school, still trying to earn a diploma.
Many others just quit: 23.3 percent of that class dropped out and did not return.