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County dropout rates deceptively high

Most school districts in Nevada County had lower dropout rates than the statewide 17.7 percent this year. However the county’s overall 76.8 percent was monumentally higher.

Holly Hermansen, superintendent of Nevada County schools, said county-sponsored charter schools across the state for at-risk youth – who inherently have high dropout rates – are calculated along with traditional schools in the county, dragging down the overall average.

“Historically determining a dropout rate for a district, or a county, seems inexact at best. It falls on the responsibility of the local district to monitor and address student retention,” said Marianne Cartan, superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High School District. “It is unfortunate that the state includes those numbers in our county rate.”

When calculating dropout rates, the state tallies each school’s enrollment on the first Wednesday in October, then compares that number to the entire year’s dropout numbers. For high mobility schools – such as Nevada County-sponsored John Muir Charter School and the Los Angeles Education Corps – the results can be deceptive.

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Typically charter schools must be located within the district or county they are sponsored by, one exception being schools like the Los Angeles Education Corps. These schools are funded by the state, not the county, Hermansen said.

John Muir Charter approached Nevada County seeking sponsorship in 1997, when the county was one of the earlier charter-friendly education areas in the state. In 2007, the L.A. Education Corps broke off from John Muir, but kept Nevada County sponsorship.

Muir’s point-in-time enrollment totaled 1,500 students at 42 sites across the state, but the school ended up having around 1,800 dropouts, said Hermansen.

L.A. Education Corps’s serves 297 students in three sites in disadvantaged neighborhoods. If an at-risk student drops out after they transfer into one of these Nevada County-sponsored schools across the state, their statistic is attributed to the county.

“People must use caution when analyzing dropout rates for schools with high mobility, such as alternative schools or dropout recovery high schools,” wrote State Superintendent Tom Torlakson in an Aug. 11 release. “In many cases, these schools serve only those students who are already at the greatest risk of dropping out of school because of their prior academic challenges. So it is also inappropriate to compare dropout rates for these schools to local comprehensive high schools.”

Hermansen said trying to separate the county’s traditional schools’ rates from the at-risk schools’ statistics is difficult because of the constant cycle of large numbers of recovery students in those schools. Looking individually at local school districts, she said, is a better way to gauge dropout rates.

Nevada Joint Union High School District’s 2009-10 dropout rate was 6.1 percent, a slight increase from last year’s 6 percent rate. In 2007-08, the district dropped to 4.7 percent, but the year prior it was a high of 8.5 percent. In 2005-06 the rate was 8.2 percent for the district.

Nevada Union High School had a 1 percent dropout rate for 2009-10, down slightly from last year’s 1.6 percent. The school’s high point in the last five years was a 2.8 percent in 2005-06. For the last two years, Bear River High School has maintained a low 0.4 percent dropout rate, with a 1.4 percent and a 1.1 percent in 2005-06 and 2007-08 respectively.

Offsetting those low numbers were some of the district’s alternative schools, despite their relatively low enrollment numbers. Sierra Mountain High (a college prep school) dropout rate was 46 percent among its 63 students, while the 143 students at Silver Springs High (a continuation school) had a 37.2 percent dropout rate.

But Hermansen and state officials say comparisons to previous year’s rates are difficult as this year’s data was the first time rates were calculated based on four-year cohort data collected on individual students using the California Longitudinal Pupil Data Assessment System, which differs from the methodology of previous years.

“The state has always had trouble with that number,” said Cartan.

This year’s new CALPADS data will serve as the baseline for future comparisons. In 2012, it will also replace the previous formula to determine graduation rates as required by U.S. law.

“For far too long, the discussion about graduation and dropout rates has revolved around how the results were obtained,” wrote Torlakson. “Now, we can focus on the much more important issue of how to raise the number of graduates and lower the number of dropouts.”

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, e-mail crosacker@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.


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