The unfinished education

District studies who leaves school and how to bring them back

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006

A pernicious monster is chewing up hundreds of Juneau kids' futures, while school and community leaders rally to understand and fight it.

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Juneau School District officials have named the student dropout rate - some say a byproduct of the city's academic, peer and ethnic discord - their chief enemy.

"Over the last five years we have lost from the educational system the equivalent of two elementary schools worth of kids, and that's just unconscionable," said Margo Waring, a Juneau School Board member.

That amounts to about 900 students between the seventh and 12th grades since 2000, in a system that has about 2,600 such students each year.

With the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, school officials began to realize the scope of the issue. It was that year that districts were required to begin submitting graduation and dropout rates to the state.

Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the dropout rate is a "huge" issue. The district has designated "Graduation Success for All" as the No. 1 strategy of its five-point strategic plan and created a committee to analyze the dropout rate and prescribe solutions,

"We're doing a lot of things and trying different things," Cowan said. "There is not a silver bullet."

The district's other four strategies - Strategy 2, Alaska Native Student Success; Strategy 3, Healthy Attitudes and Behaviors; Strategy 4, Staff Development; and Strategy 5, Community Partnerships - also are meant to bolster student achievement. A committee is dedicated to each strategy.

"It is a crisis of our whole community," said Elsa Demeksa, co-chairwoman of the Strategy 3 Committee.

By the numbers

The Strategy 1 Committee submitted an unprecedented report, "Summary of Juneau School District Dropout Data School Years 2000-2006," to the School Board late last month. It identifies who has dropped out of the district over this period by age, gender, ethnicity, academic proficiency, and some generic reasons why the students left.

Between the 2000 and 2005 school years there were 1,004 dropouts, though that number includes some who dropped out more than once. The total of individuals dropping out during that span was 868.

"You can't believe the range of problems that these kids face," said Laury Scandling, principal of Yakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School. "It's everything from a parent dying, to a parent being incarcerated, to being homeless, to being beaten, and school really does pale to some of the fundamental safety, shelter and food needs that human beings have."

Of the 1,004 dropouts this decade, 509, or 51 percent, are males. Females made up 495, or 49 percent.

Freshmen and sophomores are most at risk of dropping out, according to the report. Fifty-six percent of the dropouts in those five years were by ninth- and 10th-graders. There were also 23 reported dropouts by seventh-graders and 39 by eighth-graders.

"The data we've been looking at and what we're learning is they begin to disengage earlier," Cowan said. "One of the things we need to do is keep working with all grade levels."

Juniors made up 23 percent of the dropouts, while seniors comprised 16 percent.

Dispelling myths

Possibly the most notable element of the Strategy 1 Committee report is that the dropouts may not be who many people assume they are.

"One of the assumptions we've made in the past was because these kids weren't academically ready and they weren't getting credits, they were discouraged and dropping out," School Board President Phyllis Carlson said. "It seems like that's not totally valid. Some of our kids who are academically performing at the right standard or grade level for core contents are still disconnecting."

The majority of the dropouts were proficient or advanced by state measures in reading, writing and mathematics.

"It's not necessarily the low-ability or the failing-grade kids who are dropping out," said Kelly Hopson, a counselor at Juneau-Douglas High School.

According to the report, 64 percent of the seniors who dropped out over five years were proficient or advanced in reading, 67 percent were in writing, and 55 percent were in math. There still are a fair number of students who have fallen considerably behind the competency measures, though.

The 2005 data indicate that 56 percent of the dropouts that year were at or above proficiency levels in reading; 62 percent in writing; and 50 percent in math. The district recorded 146 "drops" in 2005.

"Many kids are credit deficient - and they go on to drop out, probably out of frustration and lack of success in course work, but many of them are not," said Phil Loseby, Strategy 1 Committee co-chairman and the district's curriculum and assessment coordinator.

The students dropping out don't seem to be the ones with overt discipline problems either, Loseby said. Out of 1,000 discipline referrals between the 2000 and 2005 school years, only 25 of them were by students who eventually dropped out of school.

Cultural achievement gap

One troubling aspect of the Strategy 1 Committee report is the number of Alaska Native students who are dropping out.

Although white students make up the majority of the district's dropouts, at roughly 53 percent, they also have the largest enrollment. Alaska Native students accounted for some 20 percent of the seventh- to 12th-grade population, yet between the 2000 and 2005 school years they accounted for 39 percent of dropouts.

Barbara Cadiente-Nelson, education director for Sealaska Heritage Institute, said many Alaska Native students feel disengaged from course work because there is not enough cultural relevance in the curriculum.

"They're looking for meaning and purpose," she said. "When they come to a textbook that they don't find themselves in, or the answers to the questions they are asking, then it has no relevance."

The rate at which Alaska Native students disengage seems to be increasing. Out of the 76 dropouts reported this year through the end of March, half are Alaska Natives. Non-Hispanic white students make up 41 percent, and Hispanics are the next highest ethnic group, at 5 percent of the total.

"One thing we know about this particular subgroup is there are a lot of social issues and challenges there too," said Carlson, an Alaska Native who works as a program manager of educational programs for Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

According to Alaska Department of Education and Early Development statistics, 43.2 percent of the state's Alaska Native students graduated on time in the 2005 school year.

Cadiente-Nelson said more attention to place-based education would help all students.

"Our teachers need what our students need - they need some relevance," she said. "They need to know and have a buy-in as to why cultural relevance is important."

Reversing a trend

The dropout rate's riddles aren't simple, Cowan said.

"We feel it's complex and we're committed as a district," she said. "And certainly the board has been committed through additional money that it has provided in recent years. A lot of it has been targeting this very problem."

The School Board has earmarked tens of thousands of dollars to help curb the issue in recent years. The pupil-to-teacher ratio has been lowered, a truancy-tracking position was created, dropout specialists were hired, and more than $12 million in grants is now at work in Juneau specifically to help Alaska Native students succeed.

The district hired two Alaska Native cultural specialists, including an artist and language specialist, to work with kids at Yakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School.

"I have seen them make a significant difference in connecting with some of our toughest-to-reach kids," Scandling said.

In an attempt to build a stronger relationship with the Native community, JDHS hosted a dinner for elders to begin "a healing process of generations on not feeling welcome in our school," Principal Bernie Sorenson said.

Truancies and tardiness are early indicators of students who may drop out of school, so JDHS started a program this year to give an hour of Saturday detention to students who arrive late to class, Sorenson said. The program has helped pinpoint students who may be at risk, she said.

JDHS counselors started a dropout-prevention plan this year. The plan includes seven strategies, each with at least one specific action taken by counselors. It includes interviews with every freshman, and the school now requires an exit interview for any student wishing to withdraw from classes.

Why do they leave?

"Kids who drop out have a long list of potential 'whys' that they drop out," Sorenson said. "It's from drugs, alcohol issues, pregnancy, grades, all of that. They drop out not just because of one or two things."

Making strong connections with teachers and administrators is a big factor in successful graduation rates, Loseby said.

"They're not connecting with the school, the system, the people," he said.

Scandling said many of the students with whom she speaks say they drop out because they worry more about balancing a checkbook and finding a job or apartment than about dissecting the history of the Civil War.

"We're teaching them subjects that they feel may not be practical for their needs at that time in their life," she said.

Demeksa said the reasons many of the students are not going to school are basic comfort needs in their lives.

"Some of these kids come to school without food," she said. "Some of these kids have no place to go at night. We have over 250 students that are homeless. Do you think that is acceptable in a community like this? I mean, this is an affluent community."

Bonnie Lanz, the district's truancy tracker, said she hears from a lot of kids that their lives outside of school make it difficult to be in school.

"When you're worried about where your next meal is coming from or where you are sleeping tonight, it's hard to put education as a priority," she said.

On the front line

One way the district is looking to curb the dropout rate is by creating small "learning communities" within schools. Sorenson has spent much of her first year as JDHS principal working on strategies for such a model.

Exactly how these small learning communities will be organized is up for discussion, Sorenson said. She hopes to have something in place before the new Mendenhall Valley high school opens for the 2008-2009 school year.

Board member Waring said the community has a responsibility and an opportunity with the new high school.

"It does present a very exciting opportunity for school reform, for that process of re-evaluating what we're doing, because it's going to change anyway," she said.

Cadiente-Nelson said the district needs a serious look at school reform to better accommodate all students.

"We need to take a good look at practices that are working and think about how we can evaluate those so we can replicate them - teaching practices, curriculum, environment," she said. "Our students need that connection with their teachers one-on-one, so that they're known and they're visible and that they mean something."

Hopson said the district needs more parental involvement, especially with the older kids. She said parental involvement is a key factor to student success.

"From experience and what I've observed is that I see a lot of times parents think, 'Oh they're in high school now, they should be independent and they're teenagers.' And I think it's really the opposite," Hopson said. "They still really need that parental involvement."

Lanz said it would be wise for the Legislature to raise the legal age at which students can drop out. She said if it was raised from 16 to 17, the state could see a 7 percent to 10 percent decrease in dropouts.

Demeksa said every Juneau resident has something at stake.

"It affects every sector of our community, be it the legal system, the businesses, or economic future," she said. "It affects everyone so everyone should pay attention to this and be very concerned."

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