High School Graduation Rates and the Dropout Factor

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By Jerrold Jensen
Where have all the high school dropouts gone? Every one of the 16 large “mainstream” high schools in Tulare County reported that over 94% of their students graduated in 2018. So, what changed?
Examining Visalia’s Mt. Whitney High School may simplify the explanation. In the fall of 2014 they enrolled 440 freshmen students. In 2018, they graduated 294—apparently 33% of the class had dropped out. But the state records show they have a 95% graduation rate—only 5% dropped out.
So how do we explain the difference? By their senior year in the fall of 2017, Mt. Whitney had transferred responsibility for nearly a third of the freshmen they started with four years earlier. The State’s success/dropout report only holds schools accountable for the “cohort” of students still registered at the school. 
It seems fair since someone else is accountable for the transferred students. And let’s face it—disruptive or disinterested kids interfere with the education of more serious students and many should be removed from mainstream classrooms. Others may simply need a self-paced independent study program. Regardless of the reason, Mt. Whitney passed off responsibility for an enormous number of the freshmen they started with—so where did they go?
For that answer we have to look at all four of Visalia’s “mainstream” public high schools. Together, by 2018 they had transferred out 20% of their students between their freshman and senior years. Meanwhile, enrollment soared in the district’s Sequoia “alternative” high school, the Visalia Charter Independent Study High School and the Charter Alternatives Academy. By the fall of 2017 Visalia had more seniors in those three alternative programs than they did in Mt. Whitney or Golden West or El Diamante high school. 
Every school district has an alternative high school to accept, at least on official registration records, students that are likely to drop out. Exeter Union High School transferred responsibility for 47 students between the 9th and 12th grade—most to either Kaweah High School or the Independent Study Charter School. Woodlake transferred 43 kids—most to Bravo Lake High School Lindsay High School transferred 89—most to the John J. Cairns Continuation School. Farmersville transferred 32—most to the Deep Creek High School. 
Generally, 80% or 90% of the students in these alternative schools are classified as “Socioeconomically Disadvantaged” and 30% to 50% are classified as English learners. Unfortunately, disruptive behavior continues for some of them and Visalia’s Sequoia HS suspended 17% of their students at least once in 2017/18. Exeter’s Kaweah High School suspended 24%. Despite those challenges, about half will be awarded graduation diplomas.
When you hear a district claim a 90% graduation rate, ask them about the results of the students whose official records were transferred to an alternative school. Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic cure for the poverty rate and general lack of support for many of them at home. A 2014 presentation by Stanford professors stated “Nationally, 68% of all males in prison do not have a high school diploma.” Let us offer a special salute to the teachers who work in a more challenging environment to help kids avoid that path to prison or a homelessness camp.
Jerrold Jensen is a retired sales manager for an international consumer goods company. After 30 years of assignments in the Southern and Western U.S., he and his wife retired near family in Visalia. He enjoys analyzing data and tries to simplify it for readers before writing his guest columns for Central Valley publications.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.