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Dropout problem drags Texas down

“I represent a district that has 80 percent renters, 70 percent of people speaking a first language other than English, where there’s a high school with 42 languages and 40 percent turnover of the student body every year — now tell me how you plan to calculate the dropout rate,” Rep. Scott Hochberg said. “I will stipulate that it’s too big — let’s just start there. I wish we fought over solutions as much as we fight over the number.”

The 2007-08 graduating class started with more than 370,000 students — and ended with about 237,000, or 64 percent. Not all students dropped out. Some left Texas public school and graduated elsewhere. Researchers argue over how to measure the dropout rate, but they agree on this point: It's way too high, and disproportionately high for Hispanic and black students.

Two decades ago, Cristina Reyes’ husband left her with two sons and little income to support them. As her boys entered high school, she struggled to balance parenting with a low-wage job in downtown Houston. And she felt helpless as they began the slide toward dropping out.

When their troubles started in middle school, she found an afterschool fine arts and tutoring program, helping clean the building in trade for the tuition she couldn’t afford. Still, neither son would graduate — one left just a credit short of graduation. Both were bright; but both needed more attention than she could provide.

“They had a lot of hurt,” she said.

After Reyes remarried and stabilized her family life, her four younger children, now aged 16 to 24, flourished in school by comparison. Three graduated. The youngest remains in school, doing well.

The story of Reyes’ six children — that a third of them dropped out — plays out all across Texas, many experts believe. The U.S. Department of Education puts the Texas graduation rate at 71.9 percent — ranking the state 36th nationally. That would put the dropout population for each year’s graduating class at roughly 130,000 — or about the size of McAllen. Another estimate, using a formula called the Cumulative Promotion Index, indicates only 64.5 percent graduate in four years.

The Texas Education Agency has come under fire for releasing much lower estimates. The number TEA most commonly cites, a “completion rate,” is 88 percent.

“No one outside of that building believes that 12 percent number,” says Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, referring to the inverse of the state rate.

Beyond the numbers

Hammond’s organization is part of an emerging nonpartisan coalition formed to bring attention to the dropout crisis — one that could grow far worse as the state’s public school population swells with immigrants and the poor, as the consensus of demographers predicts. Hammond has resuscitated a coalition that previously worked on immigration, between the TAB, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) and others. They group seeks to push for a “simplified, accurate” dropout rate, according to a joint press release.

Others see the ongoing battle over statistics — which has been fought many times before, to no resolution — as an irrelevant distraction from the task of unifying education, government and business leaders behind a comprehensive strategy befitting the urgent nature of the problem. The quibbling over statistics, after all, plays out against a backdrop of tens of thousands of teenagers taking the path to poverty every year.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who represents an impoverished southwest Houston district where the dropout problem is both stratospheric and impossible to quantify, has watched several rounds of dropout debates with dismay.

“I represent a district that has 80 percent renters, 70 percent of people speaking a first language other than English, where there’s a high school with 42 languages and 40 percent turnover of the student body every year — now tell me how you plan to calculate the dropout rate,” he said. “I will stipulate that it’s too big — let’s just start there. I wish we fought over solutions as much as we fight over the number.”

The latest study of the state’s dropouts, from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, went beyond figuring dropout rates to quantifying the debilitating consequences, both for individuals and the Texas economy.

The small picture: A high school dropout will likely make poverty-level wages of about $14,500 yearly — about $7,000 less than a graduate with no college, a gap likely to remain or widen over time.

The big picture: dropouts subtracted between $5 and $9 billion annually from the gross state product of about $1.2 trillion, according to the study, which examined probabilities of employment, wages and government aid received, calculating the economic chasm between those who graduate and those who don’t.

As for the elusive drop out rate: “We know with certainty that it’s somewhere between really, really big and terrifyingly big,” said Jason Sabo, Senior Vice President for the United Way of Texas, which sponsored the Bush School report.

“This school?!”

Some school principals seemed equally puzzled by state dropout statistics attributed to their schools. TEA lists H. Grady Spruce High School in southeast Dallas as having a 12 percent “event” dropout rate — counting only the students who leave in one school year rather than over a four-year stretch.

Grady Spruce serves a population that is 85 percent low income, 65 percent Hispanic, 23 percent speaking English as a second language, according to state data. The TEA’s dropout figures struck the school’s principal, Lucy Hakemack, as bizarre.

“This school?!” she asked incredulously.

She had just estimated that year’s rate as being almost 50 percent.

Hakemack says the dropout rate when she came to Grady Spruce last school year, “was horrible. And right now it looks like it’s gonna be horrible for this coming year.” Even after some improvement on state standardized tests, only about 40 percent of her student body is on track to graduate in four years, she said.

Ultimately, she isn’t sure if schools can provide enough support to prevent kids from dropping out. Her students can miss an entire day of school babysitting a sibling, or waiting in a free clinic for a doctor’s appointment. Gangs and other dangerous activities loom large.

“When they leave your buildings, they leave the school grounds, they enter their own culture,” she said. “They may have to fight, they may have to defend themselves, they may have to resort to things in order to make it.”

“They’re just gone”

At Robert E. Lee High School in Southwest Houston — the one Hochberg cited, with the 40 percent student turnover rate — students face similar hardships. For many in the heavily immigrant student population, dropping out is an entirely rational decision, indeed, the only option. The school’s population is 77 percent Hispanic, 14 percent African American, and 91 percent low income, according to state data.

“Some have children, some are raising siblings, or raising themselves; some have to work to support the family; some came to this country at 18 or 19 with no high school at all, and they don’t feel good sitting in classes with 15-year-olds,” said Lee Principal Steve Amstutz.

Differences in the state and federal dropout definitions produce vastly different rates for the school: “Look on the TEA website, and we’re at 67 percent” of students graduating. “Under the federal definition, we’re in the 30s.”

Often, students leave and never tell the school their intentions. Amstutz has no idea whether they dropped out or continued elsewhere, casting doubt on whether the rate has any meaning at all for schools like Lee.

“They’re just gone,” he said.

About five years ago, Amstutz responded to the problem by starting a unique program that today has grown into a new campus — Liberty High School, a 200-student, six-day-a-week, afternoon-and-night campus, serving mostly older students.

The creation and financing of the school required legislative help in Austin, which Hochberg provided in a bill that allowed for flexibility in the timing of the school day and year. Previously, the state would only finance students who attended on the school’s schedule and only allowed them to go to school until age 21.

Now, Amstutz can educate students up to 26 years old and get prorated financing for them even if they don’t attend full-time. It’s a model worthy of expansion, he said.

“It’s so easy for kids to drop out. We have to make it just as easy for them to drop back in,” Amstutz said. “Clearly we have to look at the traditional 175- or 180-day calendar — it’s broken. It works for some students and others not at all. We don’t need to stop learning for three months... and we have kids that come enroll all throughout the year.”

Further, the state’s testing and accountability system, ironically, may actually exacerbate the problem it seeks to force schools to solve. If an 18-year-old immigrant shows up at Lee High’s door — as often happens — Amstutz knows he will likely bring a low test score and a low probability of graduation. So doing the right thing, and welcoming the student, will hurt the school’s public image and potentially drive other, stronger students away.

“Statistically, I’m dead in the water,” he said. “So, wait a minute, do we have laws and policies that discourage good and proper behavior?”

Focus on action

While some still squabble over the state’s dropout rate, others clamor for a focus on action. Steve Murdock, Texas’ first state demographer and now a professor at Rice, says a broader view of the statistics paints a dire picture: that in 2040, after more waves of immigration, some 30 percent of the state’s work force will be without a high school diploma. Unless the state takes concrete action now, that is.

The Bush School study attempted to find existing programs targeting the drop out problem, but found the task more difficult than anticipated. Lori Taylor, who oversaw the report, said scant research measured which state program had succeeded and which wasted money.

Back in Houston, Reyes can’t explain why programs that worked for some of her kids didn’t work for others. She enrolled all her kids in MECA – Multicultural Education and Counseling though the Arts – the afterschool program where she still cleans and helps out to cut down the cost of tuition.

Reyes said the mothers in MECA work together to support one another’s children. As she learned more about parenting, Reyes has tried to stay more involved and enforce discipline.

“You have to dedicate time,” she said.

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