Tightening budgets have increased class sizes, reduced extracurricular offerings, and cut staff numbers. Now it appears that smaller budgets have translated into more public school dropouts as well.
School districts across the country have fallen victim to the current economic slowdown, which has resulted in significant budget cuts and tough decisions for many schools this year. Unfortunately, the budget cuts have come at a time when dropout rates are rising. Is there a connection? We will take a closer look at the issue to answer the question.
The Dropout Dilemma in California
No state has felt the brunt of school district budget cuts more acutely than California. With many districts forced to lay off counselors, end intervention services and reduce or eliminate arts and other extracurricular activities, there are fewer resources to keep kids interested in school than there once was. Recently released data seems to support this idea; according to a report at San Jose Mercury News, the dropout rate for California schools during the 2008-09 school year went up nearly three percent from the previous year.
During the 2008-09 academic year, the dropout rate was 21.7%. The previous year, that rate was just 18.9%. African Americans saw the most dropouts at 36.9%, and Hispanics followed with 26.9%. Both of these demographics saw a three-percent increase in dropouts in just one year. At the same time, California saw an increase in graduation rates, with a nearly two-percent increase in graduations across the board and a five-percent jump in Hispanic graduations.
Still, the dropout rate is far from acceptable, considering that a high school diploma is the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty from which many of these students come. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell told Mercury News, "Clearly the dropout rates are too high. It's unacceptable and absolutely must be addressed."
Less Money = More Dropouts?
O'Connell attributes the higher dropout rates to the state budget cuts. An article at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin reports that state's schools have been cut $21 billion over the last three budget years. O'Connell explains that cuts to K-12 schools have resulted in larger class sizes, fewer teachers and staff, and less electives and extracurricular activities to choose from. With fewer incentives to stay in school, and less help for students that fall behind, the school system is simply not equipped to incent kids to stay in their classes until graduation.
The economy may be hurting the school districts in other ways as well. Modesto Associate Superintendent Randy Fillpot told the Modesto Bee, "With all the foreclosures, we are actually losing kids…it's been harder actually finding them." Fillpot added that school staff will actually go knocking on doors to find students who have not been in class. In many cases, the homes are empty. Without a request for the student's file by another school district, the student is marked as a dropout.
More Trouble in Arizona
California is not the only state seeing an increase in dropouts due to budget woes. Arizona, along with Nevada and Utah, were the only three states in the country to see drops in graduation rates, when the rest of the country was seeing the numbers rise. John Pedicone, incoming superintendent of Tucson's largest school district, also attributed Arizona's dismal numbers to slashed budgets. Pedicone told the Tucson Sentinel, "We're set up for the most difficult couple of years [in a long time]. We're cut $800 million; that'll mean several million dollars in TUSD. We're desperate to do more with less."
Solutions in the Works?
Despite the troubled budgets and higher dropout rates, schools are working hard to come up with a solution. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it begins in California with a system to more accurately track students within the schools. Three years ago, the state began using student ID numbers to follow students as they enter and exit schools. This will give school systems a more accurate picture of precisely how many students drop out of school and at what grade this is most common.
The Poway Unified School District is also tracking students who are struggling academically, in hopes of getting them intervention before they drop out of school. Counselors in the district keep an eye on students with low grades to offer help when appropriate, according to the North County Times. By catching students at this stage, providing help might make the difference between a student who drops out and one who eventually graduates.
While dropout figures are concerning in many school districts today, the good news is that many schools are taking steps to try to remedy the problem. With less money and staff to work with, these schools are putting in double-duty to try to keep kids in school and raise graduation rates across their states.
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