District dropout effort analyzed

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008

The Juneau School District has a "sincere commitment and enthusiasm" to prevent students from dropping out of school, but lacks a "clear and unified vision" to address the problem, according to a recent report by a team of education experts.

The report - a 52-page draft version of which was provided to the Juneau Empire - was written by the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University. It's part of an effort spearheaded by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and funded by a federal grant to address improving the graduation rate, particularly of Alaska Native students, in Juneau.

In April, a team of experts from Clemson came to Juneau for five days to conduct interviews.

Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling said she wasn't surprised by what the experts saw and welcomed the report's findings.

"When you are sincere about doing a better job, you have to be sincere about accepting feedback," she said.

The report praises the Juneau School District's administrators for "taking positive steps" to address the reasons for why students drop out, but also points out several areas of concern, including little to no communication between interested parties, a lack of readily available data to help guide decisions, a large number of educators who are "apathetic or desensitized" to the role they can play in curbing the dropout rate, and feeling among some Alaska Native parents that the district is racist.

"There are too few well-developed and systemically implemented dropout prevention and intervention strategies currently in place to address the variety of issues and factors that influence students' willingness and ability to stay in school," the report said.

The report has several recommendations for the district, including:

• Starting a public relations campaign to improve communication with the public.

• Beginning a universal preschool program for all 3- and 4-year old children.

• Putting the district's alternative high school in a new facility that has a gymnasium.

• Providing more laptop computers to students.

• Adding a high school guidance counselor to advocate specifically for students who are in danger of dropping out.

Scandling said that some of the report's recommendations, such as universal preschool, would require a significant amount of money and may not be a realistic goal for the district. She's part of a group of school district and community members who are tasked with prioritizing and implementing some of the recommendations.

The report comes on the heels of a September release of state statistics that show Juneau's dropout rate decreased from 4.8 percent to 3.9 percent between 2005 and 2008. The state numbers also showed that the district's graduation rate had improved from 64 percent to 73 percent in 2007.

"The very beginnings of the change process, such as awareness and familiarity with the issues related to dropout, have begun," the report said. "Yet there is still a challenging road ahead for meaningful and lasting change to occur."

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.

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