Changing calculations, differing demographics and dwindling finances may add up to increasingly frustrating graduation rates in the Lawrence school district.
But don’t expect administrators to accept the mounting variables as inevitable constants.
“They’re excuses,” said Matt Brungardt, principal at Lawrence High School. “One dropout is one dropout too many.”
Nearly one in five students in the district’s two high schools fails to graduate with their peers in four years, according to data compiled in compliance with new rules related to federal No Child Left Behind legislation.
Here are the specific graduation rates for the 2009-10 school year in the Lawrence district, compared with rates as they would have been calculated under the old model:
• District: 82.1 percent, down from 90.3 percent.
• Free State High School: 84.7 percent, down from 90.8 percent.
• Lawrence High School: 81.6 percent, down from 89.8 percent.
“It’s absolutely not where we want to be,” said Kim Bodensteiner, the district’s chief academic officer.
But the formula-induced decline in rates isn’t the major concern of district and school officials. They note that the same number of students either are dropping out or not graduating on time; only the expression of those totals — to exclude students transferring into private schools, or pursuing GEDs, or graduating late — is different.
While the overall graduation rate remains an overall focus, a key concern for district officials remains the gap between graduation rates at the two schools.
Back when Free State opened in 1997, the new school’s graduation rate was 86 percent, or just below the 86.6 percent recorded at Lawrence High.
In the years since, those rankings have reversed. For 2008-09 — just before the latest data came out — Lawrence High’s graduation rate had dropped to 79.9 percent, while Free State’s had soared to 92.9 percent.
The new report may indicate that the divide is closing, but officials still see the separation as a chasm that must be addressed.
“There is a discrepancy between the two schools that is very clear,” said Vanessa Sanburn, vice president of the Lawrence school board. “We have to really look at the numbers and see what’s going on.”
Previously, explanations have concentrated on the differences between the schools. Among them: Lawrence High has more students, with more students coming from backgrounds of poverty, learning English as a second language and participating in special education programs.
Such demographics may increase challenges for making it through to graduation within four years, Sanburn said, but district officials are busy finding ways to help ease the path — both for students to do so themselves, and for teachers to help them get there.
Among those steps:
• Investing early and often. The district is pumping additional federal funds into tutoring and other interventions at Lawrence High, to help students who may be falling behind to catch back up. About $30,000 will be available to pay teachers and others to provide summertime and after-school assistance for those identified as needing help, up from the $10,000 to $15,000 in place at Free State. “If the demographics are different at the two schools, the staffing and financial resources probably have to look different as well,” Bodensteiner said.
• Increasing flexibility. Lawrence High is offering more than summer school to help students retake failed courses or to boost grades in incomplete ones. There’s also a “winter night school” — 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. twice a week, for four weeks, beginning in January — for students who may have missed out on a credit or two during the first semester, usually through missed assignments. “If passing is a 60 (percent), and you’re at 55 (percent), a teacher can refer you,” Brungardt said. “Once you finish it, you earn a D and you’ve got that credit.”
• Reconfiguring the high schools. Beginning this fall, both schools will have all four grade levels on campus, instead of ninth-graders starting their high school careers in junior high. The switch will be expected to help students get on track earlier. “Teenagers want to see meaning and relevance in their classes,” Bodensteiner said. “We can do all that when we get them all on the high school campuses.”
• Increasing course opportunities. The schools are expanding to seven-period days, up from the previous six, to help students satisfy their graduation requirements earlier and to take more classes — especially electives, and career-practical courses — than ever before. Students should see how their studies can actually mean something outside the classroom, spurring more interest and, therefore, better performance.
“When you’re learning the Pythagorean theorem to learn the Pythagorean theorem, it’s not as exciting as when you’re learning it to make a cabinet or using it in some real-world application,” Sanburn said.
Just what effect all the programs and investments and changes will have in the long run remains to be seen, especially as the district continues to grapple with financing challenges from state government. No board members or administrators expect to see more money coming out of Topeka anytime soon, leaving them to come up with “revenue-neutral” initiatives designed to get more students graduating on time.
Sanburn — who considers the district’s 82.1 percent graduation rate both “terrible” and “startling” — would like to see the rate rise to 90 percent and beyond because she knows what that would reflect: more kids earning their diplomas.
More education. More opportunities. More success.
“It’s our job as a school district, to help these kids have a bright future,” Sanburn said. “The goal is to make sure our students have bright, hopeful futures. … We want 100 percent of the students coming into our district graduating.”