Alaska editorial: Too many Alaska kids don't finish high school

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2007

A national report about dropout rates labeled some Alaska schools "drop-out factories."

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That harsh label is based on a simplistic analysis, but the study does call attention to a serious problem in Alaska.

The report takes a crude, wholesale approach to figuring drop-out rates at individual schools.

A Johns Hopkins University professor just looked at how many seniors were enrolled in a school versus the number of freshmen enrolled three years earlier. That doesn't account for kids transferring out, or even moving to a newly built school in the same district.

For example, one of the Fairbanks area schools on the bad list was at Eielson Air Force Base, where students in military families are routinely transferring in and out.

So a school that gets hit with the "drop-out factory" label may be unfairly tagged.

But the report did accomplish one thing - it got people talking about the fact that Alaska has a worse-than-average dropout problem. The average graduation rate here is 60 percent, compared to a 70 percent national average, said Eric Fry, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Education. That's by far a more realistic way of measuring dropouts, which does take into account transfers.

The dropout rate fluctuates up and down a bit, but the trend has not changed much in recent years, he said.

That's a shame.

Because of the federal No Child Left Behind law, a lot of attention is focused on the kids who stay in school. The ones who give up and leave, and truly are left behind, don't get the same level of attention in federal law.

No Child Left Behind forces the state and school districts to test students at different grade levels, so that by 2014, every student will meet basic standards for reading, writing and math.

At Barrow High, one of the schools tagged as a "drop-out factory" in the Johns Hopkins study, the graduation rate, as measured by the state, soared from 47 percent in 2006 to 70 percent in 2007, said North Slope Borough superintendent Trent Blankenship.

What have they done? Some traditional things, like putting computers at kids' disposal. But they also started a football team that has engaged the community and even gotten national attention.

Whatever it takes, Alaska districts as a whole need to do better.

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