State, Island see drop in high school dropouts
A recent report from the state department of education (DOE) shows a slight decline in high school dropouts in the 2005-2006 school year. At Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), the dropout rate not only reflected a similar decline, but also came in at more than a percentage point below the state average.
The state's dropout rate decreased from 3.8 percent in the 2004-2005 school year to 3.3 percent in 2005-2006. On Martha's Vineyard, the regional high school's dropout rate decreased from 2.7 percent in 2004-2005, 22 students out of 822, to 2.1 percent in 2005-2006, 17 out of 805.
"There are two things that are of interest to me in the report," said superintendent of schools James Weiss last Friday "First of all, we're well below the state average. If you look at the numbers, there have been one or two years in the past when our numbers have been lower, but this year, we're really in pretty good shape."
Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School had no high school dropouts in the same two-year period.
A comparison of dropout rates in a few other towns shows that Barnstable's dropout rate for 2005-2006 is 5.2 percent, Falmouth's 2.1 percent, Marblehead's 0.7 percent, Nantucket's 1.8 percent, and Plymouth's 3.1 percent.
"The other thing that I think is also good is that the competency determinations are very high," Mr. Weiss said. Competency determination rates assess the number of students who have passed the Massachusetts Competency Assessment System (MCAS) exams. At the regional high school, 99 percent of the class of 2007 has passed the MCAS exams and 96 percent of the class of 2008.
The DOE report notes that in an informal survey conducted statewide among school district superintendents in 2005, family problems and academics were cited as the two main reasons why students drop out of school.
"Our biggest dropout group is students whose parents move because of work-related issues or are seasonal workers," said MVRHS principal Margaret (Peg) Regan. She has asked the state DOE whether these students, predominantly Brazilian, might be defined as migrant workers so they would not be included in the dropout rate.
However, both the state and federal DOE only categorize people as migrant workers who are in the fishing or agriculture industries. That's an antiquated definition, particularly on the Cape and Islands in resort communities where there is a need for a big influx of workers for seasonal jobs," Ms. Regan said.
She and Mr. Weiss agree that although the seasonal influx in the Island's student population is an issue, it seems to be gradually lessening. Based on school attendance records, Ms. Regan said she estimates about three-fourths of the dropouts come from non-English speaking families whose parents are here for seasonal work. Some are older students who enroll as a freshman or sophomore and do not finish school, Ms. Regan estimated.
"Some families are deciding to stay, because they're been here now for a few years and are acculturated to the Island," Ms. Regan said. "Their kids have come up from elementary school as ELL [English language learners] students, and they're choosing for them to get a full education. They aren't pulling them out of school to go work elsewhere during the shoulder season. We're seeing a lot more families connected to their kids' education and wanting them to be in school."
The Vineyard school system attempts to keep track of students that come and go as well as possible, Mr. Weiss said. "If they leave mid-year and come back to the same school, we have a pretty good handle on it," he said.
Another concern raised by DOE regarding the state dropout report is that the numbers show a higher percentage of seniors statewide dropped out of high school than students in any other grade. Unfortunately, as Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll pointed out, many of the dropouts had graduation within their reach, as more than 65 percent of them already had passed the English and Math Massachusetts Competency Assessment System (MCAS) exams.
On Martha's Vineyard, however, of the 17 students who dropped out, eight were 11th-graders, four 10th-graders, three 12th graders, and two ninth-graders. Males accounted for 58.2 percent of the dropouts statewide and females 41.8 percent. On the Vineyard, 11 dropouts out of 17 were male, about 65 percent, compared to six females, 35 percent.
The DOE report attributes the decrease in the latest dropout numbers in part to a more accurate accounting system. In the past, the state relied on school districts to report students who earned general equivalency diplomas (GED).
A new state GED completion database now identifies students who drop out but pass the GED exam by the following October 1, which provides a more accurate count. Under federal guidelines, any student who drops out but returns, graduates, or receives a general equivalency diploma (GED) by the following October is considered to be a "return dropout" and should not be counted into the dropout total for the previous school year.
On Martha's Vineyard, a change in how the state views the high school's alternative programs has impacted how the dropout rate is determined.
The Rebecca Amos Institute, housed in a separate building on the high school campus, provides an alternative program, which can lead to a diploma. In addition, MVRHS offers an adult evening education program. In previous years, students enrolled in it were not counted as dropouts.
However, in the 2004-2005 school year, when hours were cut from the evening program, the state no longer counted it as a viable alternative because it did not provide the number of instruction hours required for a diploma.
"We still have an adult ed program, but not one that offers 900 hours, so those students are essentially working toward a GED and technically would be considered dropouts," Mr. Weiss said. "Most of our students go to the Rebecca Amos Institute, and that allows them to stay in and get a regular diploma."
Ms. Regan believes dropout rates could be improved if the state would raise the mandatory maximum age for school attendance from 16 to 18 and require students to complete high school instead of up to sixth grade.
The current school attendance law harkens back to the turn of the century, Ms. Regan said. "In this century, you have to have 12 years of schooling to do just about anything - the law needs to change," she added. "I think if the state really truly wants to keep students from dropping out, they have to make it the law that kids have to stay in school longer - and if they don't, the penalty is that they lose their driver's license."
She and Jim Powell, an MVRHS Spanish teacher, proposed raising the mandatory school attendance age to 18 and requiring graduation in a petition for legislation relative to school attendance in Senate Bill No. 357, filed by Senator Robert O'Leary in late 2006. The bill was referred to the joint committee on education in January 2007, but has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.
Ms. Regan said California imposed similar school attendance requirements some time ago. Instead of a truant officer, a School Attendance Review Board (SARB) made up of police officers, community members, social workers, medical professionals, and school personnel review records of students with problematic attendance and bring them to court.
Mr. Weiss, however, views the idea of raising the mandatory school age as "a double-edged sword."
"It's great to make them stay in school, but we've got to have a program for them that's going to be meaningful," Mr. Weiss said. "That isn't always easy for a 17-year-old that has two credits - what do you do with them?"
The DOE report can be viewed in its entirety online at www.doe.mass.edu/infoservices/reports/dropout/.