Will they graduate?

Well before nine high schools earned the obnoxious distinction of “Dropout Factory,” Washoe County schools were working to improve graduation rates

While I was working on this story about high school dropouts in Washoe County, news broke that Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, who had promised no budget cuts for Nevada’s public schools, was reversing his decision. The state’s school districts could be forced to cut $96 million from their budgets over the next two years.Washoe County schools have 63,046 students, 656 more than last year. It’s not yet clear how the budget cuts might impact academics, let alone the district’s recent efforts to increase the number of students earning high school diplomas.

Kole, 22, might have received a diploma after transferring to Washoe High, if it hadn’t been for the Washoe County School District’s attendance policy.

Washoe High was his last chance. The Reed High vice principal had told him that if he were lucky he’d be a fifth-year senior there. Between moving out of state twice and missing classes in Sparks, he’d fallen behind.

At Washoe High, he could recover credits and graduate. He transferred and dug in his heels. He was doing well until he missed one too many days of class. The school district’s 90 percent attendance requirement kicked in.

“I failed all my classes,” he says. “From the point of view of a high school student, the attendance rule is complete crap. I understand it now more than I did then. But that doesn’t make it better.”

Kole dropped out. Now he says he’d advise those in similar straits to drop out as soon as possible, get their GEDs and attend community college or trade school.

“If you’re motivated, it doesn’t matter if you finish high school,” he says.

Kole feels public schools had failed him since elementary school. Because of a hearing disability, he ended up in special education classes that were far too repetitious and easy. Because he changed elementary schools seven times, teachers never got to know his abilities.

He accepts responsibility for his choices. “No matter what is wrong in your life, it’s your own fault for not changing it.”

Kole is currently unemployed and caring for an elderly relative.

“Dropout Factories"—that was the label given to nine out of 13 Washoe County high schools last fall by researchers with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools. These high schools have 40 percent fewer seniors than freshman. Researchers used enrollment data submitted by school districts to the U.S. Department of Education.

“[These] are usually schools in which the majority or near majority of students who enter the 9th grade do not ultimately earn a diploma from the school,” Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz says.

Making the list: Wooster, Reed, Hug, Reno, Sparks, Spanish Springs, North Valleys and Galena high schools, and I Can Do Anything Charter School.

The term wasn’t intended, Balfanz says, as a slight against teachers and administrators, who often work long hours and care intensely about seeing students succeed. The idea was to call attention to “a harsh and unfair situation, under-resourced and over-challenged high schools.”

Across the nation, 1 in 10 schools fit the Dropout Factory profile. These schools get the same funding, or sometimes less, as schools filled with financially stable students whose parents will do anything to see their kids ready for college. Yet students at so-called Dropout Factories are more likely to deal with dysfunctional families, abuse, poverty, homelessness, drug problems and unaddressed health needs. Transportation to school can be problematic. Access to computers varies as do math and language skills.

Balfanz, an associate research scientist and associate director of the Talent Development High School program, has focused on school reform for 15 years.

There are fewer Dropout Factories now than in 2004, when Balfanz last released a study. But he’s troubled that Dropout Factories, more than ever, are increasingly characterized by low-income and minority student populations. The widening socio-economic gap in schools unfortunately ensures that those who desperately need a good education to better their lives are the least likely to get it.

There is good news, Balfanz says in a phone interview. By identifying the schools that produce large numbers of dropouts, the problem becomes manageable.

“It’s more solvable when it’s a subset of schools that need reform,” he says. “We don’t need to change 200,000 high schools. We need to change 2,000.”

Of Nevada’s 59 high schools, the study found that 44 percent (26 schools) are responsible for 70 percent of the state’s dropouts—including 70 percent of black and nearly 80 percent of Hispanic dropouts.

Overall, the study lists Nevada’s statewide graduation rate as 57.4 percent, the lowest in the nation. In Clark County, 15 schools made the Dropout Factory list, along with two rural high schools: West Wendover in Elko County and Pahrump Valley in Nye County.

The study made some Nevada educators defensive. The methods—comparing numbers without tracking students—seemed suspect to some. Others complained Nevada’s high transience rate hadn’t been factored in.

But transience rates, Balfanz argues, negatively impact graduation rates only if there’s a net loss of population in a community. Nevada is the fastest-growing state in the nation. That should equate to more seniors—not fewer. If anything, by not adjusting for the state’s growth, the study may be skewed toward a rosier outlook.

“My hunch is that Nevada has more incoming students than outgoing,” Balfanz says. “If more are moving in than moving out, we could have underestimated the situation.”

Chris, 21, dropped out after learning he lacked a physical education credit—which meant another year in school. He had failed for not “dressing out” in the official PE uniform. Chris didn’t know then that he could have taken ROTC or signed up for a martial arts class to compensate.

“If I’d have known I could take a class on the side, I probably would have,” says Chris, who attended Hug and Reed high schools.

Chris, once a member of the math league and a likely candidate for honors classes, dropped out the day he turned 17. He hadn’t been doing well in school for a variety of reasons. He disliked homework. And his mother, who he characterized as abusive and unable to combat her substance abuse problems, didn’t have money for needed luxuries like a graphing calculator.

Chris breezed through General Education Development tests. To pass, takers must score higher than 40 percent of graduating high school seniors nationwide.

“I got it without trying,” Chris says. “I’m not stupid. But I don’t have a piece of paper that says I’m not stupid.”

Chris has worked at Round Table Pizza, Factory 2U, Big Lots, Subway and Amazon.com. He’s currently unemployed, living with friends. He’s applied for a job at a gas station.

“I have friends who care about me and see me as a person, not a pawn in this game of chess,” he says.

Improving graduation rates is a priority for the Washoe County School District, says school district spokesman Steve Mulvenon. The school district’s 2006 accountability report reveals dismal graduation rates at a few schools.

Eric Beye, the school district’s intervention specialist, says poor families have difficult times at school.

The lowest graduation rates are at I Can Do Anything, where only 36 percent of freshmen go on to earn diplomas. Washoe High is next at 38.1 percent, followed by Hug (52.6 percent), Wooster (60.7 percent) and Sparks (66.5 percent). Reno and Galena, though on the Johns Hopkins’ Dropout Factories list, have graduation rates calculated by the school district as 89.9 and 85.6 percent respectively.

The discrepancy may be attributable to several things, from better tracking of students who end up earning degrees elsewhere (through online programs like WOLF or alternative and charter schools) to defining what counts as a diploma. Washoe County’s calculations include adult and special education diplomas, in addition to “regular” diplomas.

Also, strategies developed in response to the federal No Child Left Behind law may impact dropout numbers. That’s harder to determine, Balfanz says. The NCLB legislation allows states to dictate rates of progress regarding dropout and graduation rates. More weight is given to test scores, Balfanz says. It’s not unheard of for students to be encouraged to leave a school (transferring to another school, of course) if educators know that student will perform poorly on tests.

“What we really need is both,” Balfanz says. “Students need to graduate, and they need to graduate knowing something. These need to have equal weight.”

In 2007, NCLB designations for Hug, Wooster, North Valleys and Washoe high schools were “In Need of Improvement” for the third year. Sparks High was “In Need of Improvement” for its fourth year.

Socially and economically, Balfanz says it makes more sense to invest upfront in solid education systems than to pay later in increased crime and welfare funding.

“There are no good jobs for uneducated folks anymore,” Balfanz says. “In the 21st century, you need a diploma to have access to the American dream.”

The high school freshman sits, with her parents, facing a row of adults who want to know why she hasn’t attended classes at Wooster more than nine days this semester.

This is the Student Attendance Review Board (SARB) hearing, the front line of the school district’s recent efforts to track students—and keep them in school. The board, staffed with counselors, an attendance officer and a graduation specialist, meets at the McGee Center, a residential treatment center for young people on Longley Lane.

Last year, the district handled 620 students at this early intervention level.

Presiding over SARB hearings is Eric Beye, the school district’s intervention specialist and former principal of Opportunity School, a school for youth at risk of dropping out.

Recent changes to Nevada law require students to stay in school until age 18.

If her attendance doesn’t improve, the girl will be considered truant or incorrigible, both status offenses, or acts considered illegal because they’re committed by a minor.

“We may have to have you live out here [at the McGee Center] for a while,” Beye warns the girl.

She bites her lip and says nothing. Her mother’s voice shakes as she defends her daughter’s absences. Transportation impossibilities. A family illness. No money for textbook deposits.

A few times, when the girl did attend, teachers still marked her as absent.

When the family finally scraped together money for a textbook deposit, there were no textbooks left. She couldn’t do her homework.

“No textbooks? This is a public school. Did they give you books and then you lost them?”

She didn’t lose the books. The school doesn’t have enough books for every student in the freshman class.

“What happened in your eighth grade year? Looks like things kind of fell apart there.”

“We had to move,” her father replies.

“It’s hard to do eighth grade when you’re homeless,” the girl says quietly.

Since his job began three years ago, Beye has overseen efforts to track down kids with serious attendance problems and hook them up with resources from other community agencies, like the Bridge Center, Children’s Cabinet or Washoe County Social Services.

Many kids with attendance problems face dire family situations. The first order of business is stabilization.

“People are trying to make ends meet,” Beye says. “A lot of families are in survivor mode.”

Through partnerships, Beye has seen families get rental assistance, day care, mental health care, dentistry—even money to track down a birth certificate needed for enrollment.

“Before we start ripping kids out of the home, let’s go out there and see how to make it a little bit better,” Beye says. “We have a pretty good safety net.”

For this student, Beye recommends an appointment with the Bridge Center, where she can get counseling and assistance. Transportation is discussed. She’s told that she can’t—by law—miss any more school. She’ll have to attend Wooster for the rest of the semester, though she has no chance of earning any credits because of the district’s attendance policy.

“By law, your tail has to be in the seat,” she is told.

Attending summer school will help her get back on track, recommends Kelly Jesch, counseling coordinator. “You need 22.5 credits to graduate, and you haven’t started yet.”

In front of Jesch are the girl’s standardized test scores—enviably high.

“You’ve got a ton of potential,” Jesch says. “We don’t always see that here.”

Kelly Jesch, Washoe County School District counseling coordinator, sometimes sees high-potential, but failing, students.

Photo By Todd Upton

The SARB process begins in the sixth grade and focuses most strongly on students in transition years of middle school.

The school district reported a dropout rate of 2.7 percent in 2006. That’s the change between students enrolled from one year to the next who didn’t return or enroll elsewhere in Nevada or another state.

Students can fall through the cracks. When a student leaves one school ostensibly to attend another, that student may never arrive at the new school. Some students move around so much that they seem to “fall off the face of the earth,” Beye says.

Washoe County has 58 elementary schools, 11 junior high schools and 13 high schools. Three attendance officers divvy up these schools. Each handles a caseload of around 150 students—all from different schools—at any given time.

Is three people enough? Beye, sitting in his tiny office near the McGee Center’s front door, hesitates to admit any lack of resources. But this one’s obvious.

“Oh my gosh,” he says. “It’s very difficult to make an impact with three.”

Better would be an attendance officer at each school, forming relationships with kids, parents, administrators and teachers.

“If you look at 100 kids, there’s a low percentage of kids who need this,” he says. “But by making a phone call, making that personal connection …”

Beye is interrupted by the walkie-talkie that connects him with school police and truancy officers.

He handles the call and returns.

“A lot of kids need that personal touch,” Beye says. “The reasons they’re not coming to school are different. It’s very rare that they’re just stubborn and not going to school.”

Family stabilization might have helped Sarah, 19, earn a diploma. She was taking math, photography and art classes at ICDA charter school when she stopped going to class, illegally, at age 16. She’d run away from what she calls an abusive home environment—and the police were looking for her.

She started running away while a freshman and ended up spending a year in youth detention in Caliente. She was 14.

“They didn’t bother to see why I was running away,” Sarah says.

She attended the facility’s high school, C.O. Bastian, where she took classes in hotel management, photography, small engine repair and welding. That was her best high school experience.

“I dug on the hotel management,” she says.

When released from Caliente Youth Center, Sarah spent seven months in Sagewinds, where other teens were receiving substance abuse counseling. She wasn’t a user of illegal drugs when she entered.

“Not the best place to put me,” she says.

She began attending ICDA.

When released, she was expected to move back home and continue classes at ICDA. The bright, bubbly teen did both. But not for long.

For two years, Sarah evaded police, living on friends’ couches and sleeping in vacant houses under construction. She didn’t regret not being in high school.

“I didn’t like being put in a classroom with people I didn’t like and being lectured,” she says. “I got the GED, and I did really, really well on it.”

Sarah now makes $7.25 an hour working at a restaurant near downtown Reno. She shares an apartment with two roommates. She can’t see herself living on this income forever.

“God, no,” she says. “I don’t even have a car.”

The work being done by Beye’s team is just a start.

“The solutions are not in place yet,” says Nancy Sanger, senior director of high schools. “All of the high schools have developed programs to help freshmen be successful. We’re taking a look to see what’s working at particular schools. These are nice but not getting the results we need.”

Sanger, formerly Sparks High principal, is offended by the use of the term “dropout factory.”

“We work so hard with students,” she says. “Our intent is not to be a ‘dropout factory.’ We know we’ve got to do a better job of focusing on all students. Part is building relationships with them and developing lesson strategies that match their learning.”

Sanger also hesitates to discuss any lack of financial resources and personnel to address the problem.

“Additional resources, if used appropriately, would certainly make a difference,” she says. “But you can’t just reduce the number of students in a class and teach the same way you always taught.”

From experience, Sanger knows the problems faced by high school educators on a daily basis.

“Sometimes you don’t know which [problem] to solve first,” she says. “Every single one of our high schools is doing a wonderful job. Sometimes our scores don’t show what happens on a daily basis in the classroom.