Arizona Grapples With Persistent Dropout Problem

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They are an elusive population: faces that vanish from class yearbooks, then reappear in low-wage jobs, unemployment offices, and even at other schools. This year, educators in Arizona received what might be the most detailed snapshot yet of the teenagers who are dropping out of their schools by the thousands.

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They did not like what it showed them.

A report completed by the Arizona Department of Education over a four-year period found that almost 22 percent of students who started high school in the state in 1996 had not graduated by 2000. The study backed up other, recent findings that consistently have ranked Arizona near the bottom nationwide in preventing dropouts. And it revealed wide gaps in the graduation rates between minority and white students, as well as similar disparities between boys and girls.

For education leaders in the fast-growing state, the research lends new urgency to the effort to reach out to students on the verge of quitting school for academic, economic, or cultural reasons.

In the hallways and classrooms of Tucson's Sunnyside High School, students put a human face on Arizona's plight. The state's report put Sunnyside High's dropout rate at more than 38 percent, though officials at the school, who researched the data on their own, say those numbers are inflated.

But there's no discounting the school's day-to-day challenges. Located on the south side of the city, 89 percent of Sunnyside High's population is Hispanic, with many students having only recently arrived from Mexico. When their families move across town or out of Tucson in search of work or better housing, most students pack up along with them, said Stuart F. Baker, the school's assistant principal for student relations.

Some students tell administrators they are returning to Mexico for funerals or other family functions, and then don't come back. The border is about 60 miles away.

"We're trying to talk to every incoming freshman, trying to catch them at an early age, before they think about leaving school," Mr. Baker said of the services Sunnyside High has set up to deter dropouts. "We need to do a better job as a state of recording what happens to students."

Following a Class

Arizona's latest dropout numbers were collected through what is known as a "cohort" study, meant to track students over a four-year period. Because the researchers collect data over the course of several years instead of just one, cohort studies typically produce higher dropout rates than do other estimates.

Out of 57,585 students tracked in Arizona's report, 71 percent graduated in four years. Slightly fewer than 22 percent of the students dropped out, or did not immediately continue their education. An additional 6.9 percent enrolled in a fifth year of high school— which is legal in Arizona—and just 0.3 percent secured a General Educational Development credential.

Students who transferred did not count as dropouts in the study, provided the schools those pupils left could provide proof that they had re-enrolled, said Anabel Aportela, the director of research for the state education department.

The study also revealed disparities in dropout rates among different racial and ethnic groups. White students had a 79 percent graduation rate, while only 59 percent of Hispanic students, 56 percent of Native Americans, and 68 percent of African Americans finished school. It also showed a gender gap: Seventy-five percent of female students earned diplomas, compared with 62 percent of male students.

The overall graduation rate in Arizona had improved a bit from a similar study four years ago, when a state study found that 69.3 percent of students finished school, Ms. Aportela said. White and Hispanic graduation rates also rose slightly, she said. But state officials say they believe fewer schools reported information four years ago, and are not certain that the study used the same methodology, Ms. Aportela noted.

The high Hispanic dropout rate did not surprise Richard G. Fimbres, vice president for the far west region of the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights and advocacy organization. Securing a high school diploma is much less important to many Hispanic teenagers across Arizona than coping with day-to-day needs, he said.

"The Latino family is very close, and one of the responsibilities you have is to help the family," said Mr. Fimbres, who lives in Tuscon. "Because of the situation the family is in, the [sons and daughters] go to work. They don't realize that if you stay in school, or even go to community college, you can earn more."

Pinpointing dropout rates has never been easy. Last month, the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, released a survey of 36 states that put Texas' dropout rate at 5 percent for a period covering one school year, in 1999-2000. That rate was almost four times higher than the state's dropout estimate. Texas officials attributed the discrepancy to different methods of counting GED students, among other factors.

The national study did not provide a dropout rate for Arizona.

Even detailed studies like Arizona's state report, which drew on student data taken from local school districts, can spark disagreement.

Mr. Baker discounted the dropout rate of 38.3 percent assigned to Sunnyside High School, for instance, saying his school had spent several weeks tracking down students the state had counted as dropouts, and found many of them had re-enrolled in schools in Arizona and New Mexico. Of the class that enrolled in 1996-97, only about 15 percent dropped out, he estimated.

In the years ahead, Arizona schools will be under more pressure than ever to keep teenagers in school. State officials will use latest dropout estimates as part of a formula for judging schools under an accountability system, which gauges test scores, and how many pupils quit school, among other factors. By Oct. 15 of this year, schools could be labeled "nonperforming," and if they haven't turned in plans to improve by Jan. 15, 2003, they could have state funding taken away.

Arizona officials also have required schools to complete individual profiles of students through a statewide tracking system, a step that some say will give educators a clearer view of the dropout problem.

State schools Superintendent Jaime A. Molera believes students prone to quitting early should be given better access to vocational education. He also predicts that a new statewide initiative that requires students to learn to read proficiently by 3rd grade, known as Arizona READS (Readiness, Early Diagnosis and Intervention, Accountability, Development of Teacher Expertise, and Support) will curb the dropout problem in the long term by identifying struggling students early.

"It has to start in the early grades," Mr. Molera said. "If a kid isn't reading by the 3rd grade level, we can predict [lower] academic outcomes."

Vol. 22, Issue 1, Pages 22, 32

Published in Print: September 4, 2002, as Arizona Grapples With Persistent Dropout Problem
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