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Stark graduation rates improving

By Melissa Griffy Seeton
Posted Apr 08, 2011 @ 07:00 AM
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In 10 years time, Timken High School has gone from graduating half of its student body to graduating nearly 90 percent.

That jump, and the efforts by Canton City Schools, have been recognized nationally, but officials acknowledge there is more to be done.

And while graduation rates continue to improve across Stark County — some nearing excellent — 100 percent remains an elusive goal for many districts.

The state standard for graduation rates is 90 percent. Most area schools have accomplished that. About half of the high schools in the county’s 17 public school districts have a better than 95 percent graduation rate. The county’s two private high schools, Central Catholic and St. Thomas Aquinas, are graduating 100 percent of their students, according to the schools’ principals. Alliance High School and Washington High School in Massillon are hovering around 80 percent, state data shows.

In any given year, hundreds of students across Stark County do not graduate with their classmates. In 2009, roughly 500 Stark County-area public school students failed to graduate with their peers, according to figures from the Ohio Department of Education.

“I don’t think 100 percent is impossible. One kid not graduating is too many,” said Brent May, superintendent of Plain Local Schools. “We have to make education an important topic to everyone in our community, not just 95 percent. Because where is the other 5 percent going?”

URBAN CHALLENGE

Statewide, urban and rural school districts face greater challenges in getting all students to graduation day. The biggest obstacle: Poverty.

In reporting the state’s graduation rates during the Department of Education’s annual release last summer, former State Superintendent Deborah Delisle cited an achievement gap, stating the graduation rate is worse among blacks and Hispanics, whose rates statewide are just more than 61 percent, and among migrants, whose graduation rate is 55.2 percent. Asians are highest, at 92 percent, with whites at 88.6 percent.

“The graduation rate is clearly a concern for the Department of Education, and it is a key priority for us,” Delisle had said.

While Canton City Schools’ graduation rate has improved during the past decade, the districts most similar to Canton City within Stark County — Alliance and Massillon city districts — have failed to make gains in their graduation rates.

Peter Basil, superintendent of Alliance City Schools, cited poverty as the district’s chief barrier to graduating 100 percent of its students.

“Some students have dropped out because they had to get a job to help support their families,” he said.

Similar to Canton City Schools, the Alliance district has a highly transient student population. Students, as a result, can get behind in course work, and some find it difficult to recover.

Alliance has instituted a number of programs to try to improve the district’s graduation rate. Among them: A reading program in its elementary and middle schools to ensure fewer students enter Alliance High School below reading level. The high school offers tutoring, credit recovery and an alternative education program online.

“Each district has its own challenges,” said Adrienne O’Neill, president of the Stark Education Partnership, which, in 2002, formed a P-16 Compact to increase high school graduation rates and the number of students enrolling in college.

“All of our districts — including urban districts across the country — need to pay attention to what Canton City Schools are doing.”

Canton City Schools was one of two Ohio districts featured recently as a case study in “Building a Grad Nation.” Among the report’s chief authors: The Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

“It is astonishing, every time I mention Canton City Schools’ figures, (other educators) just say we want to be able to do that, too,” O’Neill said. “But it has been a process of everyone working together: The teachers, the administration, colleges and the community, and the Board of Education being relentless in the supporting of the district’s programs.”

STRIVING FOR 100 PERCENT

A 2010 graduation rate of 80.1 percent for Canton City Schools will be reported by the Ohio Department of Education on the state’s annual report cards this summer. The rate is the highest the district has seen in more than a decade. The rate for this year won’t be reported until the following August.

Still, “we cannot accept graduating 80 percent of our students,” said Superintendent Michele Evans. “The message we are trying to send is that we really care and we want our students to be successful. We are going the extra mile, so we need our families to step there with us.”

Over the past decade, Canton City Schools has made strides in improving graduation numbers. In the 2000-01 school year, the district’s graduation rate was 58.8 percent.

More good news for the city district: McKinley High School will gain the state indicator measuring graduation — for the first time. The high school’s rate is 91.8 percent.

But getting to 100 percent will be difficult, Evans admits. Because the state calculates graduation rates based on whether a student graduates within four years with their fellow classmates, many urban districts will struggle to reach 100 — or even 95 percent, she said.

“Life gets in the way for a lot of our kids,” Evans said. “If we are going to get all kids to graduate in four years, we have to remove those life barriers, and that’s next to impossible. We have students who have their own kids, who take time off to help an ailing parent, and students who drop out of school to go to work to support their families.

“The one-size fits all belief is just not true,” she said. “Not all kids fit inside a pretty box with a ribbon on top.”

That’s why the district has created a number of alternative learning programs at the Compton Learning Center. Most of the 600 students who walk through the doors of the school, nestled along 14th Street SE, have dropped out of school and are returning to take part in one of the center’s programs. Those programs range from Passages High School (the oldest such program in the county accepting students from five local school districts) to the credit recovery program known as The Graduation Academy, to a program known as OUTPOST that provides additional support to high school seniors.

One of Compton’s more popular programs is Choices High School. Established in 2000, the program offers students who have dropped out of school the opportunity to earn a diploma. Choices, along with the district’s Digital Academy, are two of the programs Evans praises for contributing to the district’s rising graduation rate.

“We don’t operate within the traditional framework,” said Minerva Morrow, principal of the Digital Academy. “The message is that they are valued.

“We want them to graduate.”

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