Most socioeconomic indicators in the midsize Central Valley city of Stockton, Calif., would point to a high school dropout problem more severe than it actually is.
But, for the second straight year, the dropout rate in the 38,000-student district, where roughly 70 percent of students come from poor, Latino families, is expected to shrink, thanks to an aggressive effort to identify the students who have left high school, locate them, and lure them back—or cross them off the Stockton rolls if they’ve enrolled elsewhere.
After district officials launched a dropout-recovery campaign in 2009—which included correcting so-called “bad data” for the previous school year—the dropout rate fell by more than half, says Scott R. Traub, the district’s administrator for research, evaluation, and assessment. The dropout rate, which stood at 52.5 percent for the class that started as 9th graders in 2003 and graduated in the 2006-07 school year, fell to 17.7 percent for the graduating class of 2007-08, after the adjustments were made. (The California Department of Education had not released dropout data for the 2008-09 school year before the deadline for this article.)
Central to that steep reduction has been the district’s use of data—attendance figures, suspension numbers, dropout statistics, and student-transfer figures are among the major data points—to track down students who are unaccounted for. Launched in January 2009, the Reclaiming Our Youth Center—a critical part of the recovery campaign—began searching for students with 10 or more consecutive, unexcused absences and persuading them to return to school, as well as whittling down the number of students erroneously counted as district dropouts in the 2007-08 school year.
Using long lists of missing students, district employees—redeployed from other jobs within the school system—have put out hundreds of calls to family members in the year and a half since launching the initiative. When a missing youth is located, the unit dispatches special teams to visit the student and his or her family and make a pitch to bring the student back into the district’s fold.
Q What have been the key pieces of data that Stockton Unified has used to grapple with its dropout rate?
We begin with the codes that are identified by the state as dropout codes and “lost transfers,” which are students that indicate they are transferring to another school and never enroll. We look at attendance, suspension, grades, et cetera.
The center’s employees also follow leads to locate students who have enrolled in other school districts, a community college, or a high-school-equivalency program. Once team members verify a student’s enrollment elsewhere, they scratch that student’s name off the Stockton list. And the number of students counted as dropouts shrank and shrank.
Now, as it wraps up its second year, the center is focusing on reclaiming students at those points during the school calendar when they are most likely to go missing: at the beginning of the school year and after the district’s winter break, Traub says.
And the district has painstakingly trained attendance registrars in all 55 schools to ensure a more accurate recording of students’ whereabouts, he said.
“This is doable for next to nothing,” says Traub, who notes that the district has not had to curtail its efforts despite significant spending cuts to K-12 programs in recession-battered California.
“One of the easiest things for districts to do is to just record and track kids accurately,” he says. “Once you get that done, most districts will see a bump in reducing their dropout rate.”
By reassigning existing employees and tapping parent liaisons to help do the work of finding students, the district has not had to hire new staff members.
Beyond using data to more carefully record who is, and who isn’t, a dropout, district officials are investing multiple resources to keep students on the path to graduation.
Last fall, the district opened a new charter high school designed to reach students who have fallen behind in credits or who want to prepare for taking the exam to obtain a General Educational Development, or GED, credential. The school is also designed to serve students for whom “school is just not a priority,” Traub says.
Summary statistics for districts serving cities with populations from 100,000 to 250,000.
• 7% of U.S. student population served
• 63% graduation rate, class of 2007
• 177 districts in midsize cities
• 19,987 median student enrollment
• 34 median number of schools
• 2 percentage-point improvement in graduation rate, 1997 to 2007
Source: EPE Research Center, 2010
For students in need of more challenging and engaging high school courses, the district started an early-college program.
And it is continuing with a campaign to boost SAT and PSAT participation by covering the costs (with the help of a federal grant and fee waivers from the College Board, which owns the SAT) for sophomores and juniors to take the exams.
Enlisting the wider Stockton community—including current Mayor Ann Johnston, business leaders, and local clergy—has proved crucial to keeping the multipronged initiative going.
That’s been especially important since last fall when the school board fired Superintendent Anthony Amato, who launched much of the anti-dropout campaign, Traub notes.
Q&A: Scott R. Traub Cont.
Return to the beginning of this Q & A >> Q Were you mostly dependent on internal, district data?
Yes, we consistently use the data from our student-information system. This provides the most up-to-date demographic, academic, and behavioral data, which is critical to finding the students, as quickly as possible, to ensure they enroll in school in an appropriate program.
Q In addition to using data to locate students who were being erroneously counted as district dropouts, how else have you used data components to address the dropout issue?
Multiple sources of data have assisted us in addressing the issue. Primarily, current and past demographic information, relatives’ address data is used for location purposes, and if the student is no longer there, we then talk to neighbors in an effort to find the whereabouts. This procedure has helped locate many students where we would not have been able to without the personal visit to the home and neighborhood. We also review enrollment, attendance, and discipline trends over time, not only at the district level, but at the school and grade level as well, so we can zero in on specific, potential causes of students’ dropping out. We further expand the lens to look at what we are doing programmatically—both in and outside of school—with students to investigate whether their academic/social needs are being met, and if they aren’t, we try to match their needs with a program that we offer here in the district.
Q How has Stockton’s strategy for driving down the dropout rate and raising the graduation rate evolved so far in the two [school] years since the district launched this initiative?
The past two years have seen an evolution of policy, procedure, and processes that are now part of the culture of the district. Cross-department collaboration is more prevalent, and that has brought a new level of shared responsibility for this that hasn’t been present. Outside of the school district, community partnerships, the city of Stockton, and local businesses are more aware of the issue and how they can help support the district and the initiatives.
Q The district went through a leadership change just a little over a year after the initiative began. How has Stockton Unified been able to sustain the efforts despite that change?
The collaborative efforts mentioned above have allowed the whole initiative to turn into institutionalized practices that are constantly being evaluated for effectiveness and modified as necessary. By moving from an “initiative” mentality to an institutionalized practice mind-set, any ramifications of leadership change, whether it be at the school site or the superintendent level, will be greatly reduced, if not absent entirely, as any new individual in those positions will understand that these efforts are part of what Stockton does.
—Lesli A. Maxwell