WASHINGTON – Of 300 U.S. high schools that graduated fewer than 40 percent of their students from 2004 to 2006,15 schools graduated less than 20 percent.
A Johns Hopkins University study,presented on Capitol Hill last month,tracked the graduation rates of all 17,000 U.S. high schools. About 2,000 of these schools were dubbed “dropout factories,” graduating only about half of their student body.
The study by Robert Balfanz,a Johns Hopkins University research scientist,found 69 schools that graduated between 20 and 30 percent of students.
Educators and government officials say they are working diligently to combat this issue and fix schools that are in the worst shape – which is not an easy task.
In the 2007 study,which has not been updated,the New York and Cincinnati public schools were listed as having some of the worst high schools – some with graduation rates as low as 9 percent.
“The schools that aren't doing well wind up in a self-perpetuating cycle,” said Melody Meyer,deputy press secretary for New York City's Department of Education. These failing schools lose good students to better schools and essentially become dumping grounds for the worst students in the city,she said.
In New York,some high schools were closed based on low graduation rates,Meyer said. “When we close one school,we still utilize the building,” she said “We split the building into smaller schools that enroll between 500 and 650 students,still filling the building to capacity.”
Evander Childs is one of 12 New York schools that was closed,then reopened in 2002 – it now houses six different high schools. “A building capable of holding 4,000 students only had 2,000 kids because of reputation,” Meyer said.
“It's pretty remarkable,” she said. “In 2002,2003 and 2004 those 12 schools collectively had a graduation rate of 33 percent. In 2007,the new schools had a graduation rate of 76 percent.”
New York has since closed and reformed 34 schools. “Not only are the schools doing way better,” Meyer said,”the citywide graduation rate is about 62 percent,up from 50 percent in 2002. We hadn't seen any improvement for about a decade.”
Much like New York,Cincinnati closed failing high schools and used the buildings to house multiple schools. Withrow Traditional High School,once plagued with graduation rates of near 50 percent,was closed in 2002 and spilt into two high schools – Withrow International and Withrow University High School.
Sharon Johnson,Withrow University's principal,said she realized that a reason for the low performance of the former high school was the way it was structured.
“When I came here and saw the mess,” she said,”there was nowhere to go but up. When you're at rock bottom,the only place you can go is up.”
In less than a decade,Johnson has transformed the school from a failing institution to an excellent one by state standards. It had a 2007 graduation rate of 96 percent and sent about 70 percent of those graduates to college.
“Having high expectations is critical,” Johnson said.
Another reason for the success of her students,Johnson said,is the mandatory summer bridge program she created for incoming freshmen. “It helps the students make the transition into high school,” she said.
The month-long program,which is held on Xavier University's Cincinnati campus,helps teachers identify the academic needs of their students before the school year begins.
“It allows the students to get a feel of what it is like to learn on a college campus,” Johnson said. It also builds relationships between parents and teachers,which Johnson insisted is a critical part of a child's academic success.
In a meeting at the National Press Club Friday,Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke of the importance of fixing the education system.
He said the stimulus bill has set aside nearly $100 billion,an unprecedented amount of money,for education efforts.
But Duncan noted that problems with the education system are more complicated than financial woes and that other educators agree. “It's not about the money,” he said. “It's about the reform. We want to have a high bar that everybody's pushing for.”
Gerald Tirozzi,executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals,pointed out that a child's environment is a major cause of the dropout rate. “It's much more complex than looking at the schools,” he said.
Tirozzi cited poverty,unemployment,lack of adequate health care and gangs as some of the factors contributing to the downfall of these children.
“You can't separate those issues,” Tirozzi said. “They don't disappear when they walk in the door.”
Since reforms began in the Cincinnati schools in 2000,educators have closed the high school graduation achievement gap between black and white students,said Dawn Grady,marketing manager of the city's school district. School districts in other states are observing Cincinnati schools to learn how to reform their failing high schools.
Robert A. Taft Traditional High School was a Cincinnati high school named in the study as having graduation rates of 11 percent. In 2001 it was reformed as Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School and had a 2007 graduation rate of 87 percent,Grady said. “We have seen a great deal of success,” she said. This year's report will be released in August.
“We are addressing the problem,and we are making a difference,” Johnson said. “Quality teachers can change the life of a child.”
To search for individual schools on the complete list of the nearly 2,000 “dropout factories” click here
The study identified these 15 schools with graduation rates below 20 percent:
New York – all but one are in New York City:
- Theodore Roosevelt High School
- William H. Taft High School
- Newcomers High School: Academy for New Americans
- High School of Graphic Communication Art
- Thomas Jefferson High School
- Alfred E. Smith High School
- Automotive High School
- Evander Childs High School
- Jamaica High School
- Bioscience & Health Career High School at Franklin, Rochester
- Sullivan High School, Chicago
- Aiken Traditional High School,Cincinnati
- Redford High School, Detroit