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Educators Say More Effort Needed To Prevent Dropouts

The need for widespread efforts to keep more students in school has been overshadowed by other education reform efforts and kept out of the limelight by inaccurate data on dropouts, education leaders who gathered at a convention here said last week.

Hundreds of educators and other people who work with at-risk students convened the 11th Annual National Dropout Prevention Network Conference.

The network, run in conjunction with the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., keeps statistics, holds national and regional meetings, and offers help to schools and educators.

The Dec. 4-8 meeting featured four days of workshops, site visits, and keynote speakers, many of them focusing on school-based programs.

A recurring theme was how the public's lack of knowledge about the dropout problem discourages meaningful weapons against it.

Political leaders often demand dropout-prevention programs based on limited information, some participants said.

"To simply run a program knee-jerk, based on some very general data, doesn't make sense," said Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees dropout-prevention efforts for the Nevada Department of Education.

Mr. Fitzgerald and co-worker Carol Crothers showed in a workshop how federal and state dropout statistics are often skewed and have different meanings. For example, the U. S. Department of Education's figures on the national dropout rate don't seem to match with their statistics on graduation rates. And some states count students who transfer to General Educational Development programs as dropouts, while others don't.

The speakers said a politician or an educator shouldn't begin prevention programs based on one or two indicators, but should use complete studies that determine how many students quit school, why, where, and at what point in their school careers.

Nevada has established a coalition of political, education and business leaders to focus on dropouts as part of its accountability system.

Many people at the conference were from Texas, which has included in its school accountability laws new requirements about reporting dropouts.

Austin Superintendent Pascal D. "Pat" Forgione, who until earlier this year was the U.S. commissioner of education statistics, recently apologized before a Texas Senate panel after his district failed to report accurate dropout data. State law gives automatic unacceptable grades on public report cards for districts that report unreasonably low numbers of dropouts.

One of the state Senate's leaders on school and dropout-related bills is Democratic Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. He warned conference participants that Texas' dropout numbers may not be dropping, as some statistics appear to show.

"I am sad to report that the rapid decrease of dropouts in Texas is, at best, overstated," he said. "We still do not have a handle on the dimensions of the problem in our own state."

Victoria Baldwin, the principal of a high school for at-risk juniors and seniors in Austin, said in a speech that educators shouldn't allow any students to give up on education.

"I have the answer to public school problems and student achievement," said Ms. Baldwin, who heads Gonzalo Garza High School. "If we fill our schools with teachers and principals and others who sincerely care about kids, then you're not going to see kids who are four or five years behind. Isn't that simple?"

Vicki Spriggs, who leads Texas' state agency that deals with youth crime, said she was outraged that the state's schools for disorderly students enroll children as young as kindergarten age. Many of her students haven't received the mental-health and educational attention they need, she said.

Ms. Spriggs, the executive director of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission, called for more resources and programs aimed at solving children's problems before they lead to prison or welfare, which costs society far more than schools do.

"Pay attention now or pay the bill later," she said.

--Alan Richard

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Page 11

Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as Reporter's Notebook
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