Seven Alaska schools reach dubious mark

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Seven of the state's 40 high schools - or more than 17 percent - have the dubious distinction of being a "dropout factory," according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education data.

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The nationwide statistics come from Education Department data analyzed by the Johns Hopkins University for The Associated Press.

The data tracked senior classes for three years in a row - 2004, 2005 and 2006 - to make sure local events like plant closures weren't to blame for the low retention rates.

A "Dropout Factory" designation goes to the school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen advance to their senior year.

Of those seven Alaska schools bearing that label, three come from the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District: Ben Eielson Jr./Sr. High School; Lathrop High School; North Pole High School. School district officials didn't immediately return phones calls Monday seeking comment.

Other Alaska districts falling into that category were: Lower Kuskokwim's Bethel Regional; Dillingham City's high school; Matanuska Susitna Borough's Wasilla High and North Slope Borough's Barrow High.

The state's Department of Education hadn't seen the report, but is not disputing it, said department spokesman Eric Fry.

"We don't doubt it for one second," Fry said, while noting some unique challenges of education rural Alaska youth.

"There isn't going to be one solution to working on this problem because there are so many reasons," he said. "There are kids who are homeless; there are kids who have to take care of younger siblings; there are kids who need a job."

Fry said the state is attacking the problem from several angles, such as:

• Mentoring new teachers. "This isn't something you pick up right away out of college," Fry said.

• Reviewing curriculum and teaching methods. Fry said these are called instructional audits designed to engage students. "If they are doing better, they are less likely to drop out," he said.

• A new preparatory curriculum called, "work ready, college ready," designed to be more inclusive when preparing students for post-graduation life.

House Rep. Bob Roses, R-Anchorage, said it's an old - yet dynamic - subject that needs a fresh look.

"What drives it home now is back in '60s, if you dropped out, you went to work in a factory or local service job," said Roses, who taught math in the Anchorage School District for 20 years. "The doesn't exist anymore because many of the manufacturing jobs have been farmed out to other countries."

House Rules Chairman John Coghill, a North Pole Republican whose district includes one of the schools, said a transient lifestyle plays a huge role in drop outs.

In the Fairbanks area, for example many students' parents are based at Eielson Air Force Base and may be transferred to another base before the student can graduate.

But transient issues are not limited to the military, he said.

"If you've ever lived in Alaska, you'd know Bethel is a hub, and that's been tough on kids whose families migrate in from Anchorage, then move on to Fort Yukon," Coghill said.

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