Leaving school - Information from state department 'confusing,' district officials say

On the surface, the latest dropout data from the Oregon Department of Education in Salem doesn't look particularly positive for the Forest Grove School District.

Among the five school districts in western Washington County, Forest Grove comes in dead last with a graduation rate of 84 percent in 2006-07.

That means 60 members of the FGHS Class of 2007 dropped out between fall term of their freshman year and the end of their senior year.

By comparison, ODE figures say the Beaverton School District graduated 85 percent of its seniors last year. Banks graduated 89 percent, Hillsboro graduated 90 percent and Gaston - with only two dropouts listed - saw 96 percent of its seniors earn diplomas.

The statistics are confusing for several reasons, district officials say.

'Officially our dropout rate for 2006-07 was 3.1 percent,' up from 2.4 percent the year before, said Connie Potter, director of communications. 'But it's a bit confusing.'

When calculating numbers for 2005-06, the ODE 'only included those who physically attend classes at FGHS,' not those at the Community Alternative Learning Center, the district's alternative high school, Potter said.

But in their reporting for 2006-07 - when 31 of 60 dropouts were to be alternative school students - FGHS administrators switched protocol and included all the students on both campuses.

'We did that two years ago,' said Principal John O'Neill. 'We wanted to increase the pressure on ourselves to keep more kids in school. We wanted to have more accountability.'

Numbers game

Superintendents in Banks and Gaston admit that when it comes to dropout percentages, it's largely a numbers game.

'With a district our size, one kid equals a percentage point,' said Marv Ott, Banks superintendent. At Banks High School - where the dropout rate rose from 1.6 percent to 2.4 percent from 2005-06 to 2006-07 - enrollment is only 420 students.

'We're looking at the possibility of adding alternative programming, but our options are limited,' said Ott. 'Our staff really follows the kids. If they stop coming (to class) they make personal phone calls.'

In Gaston, where the high school enrolls 180 students, the data is 'really a function of our size,' said Superintendent David Beasley.

'We're pleased that our numbers are good, but we lose a few students every year - some due to employment and others to family obligations,' he noted. 'Some students, when they reach age 18, have a fierce desire to be independent, and school interferes with their ability to support themselves.'

Still, Beasley said, administrators and teachers are interested in retaining their high school students.

'We have summer school for those who need it, and software that allows students to study for their General Educational Development (GED) degree,' he pointed out.

Potter insisted the numbers in Forest Grove aren't as dire as they might seem.

'Bottom line is, the (FGHS) dropout rate, at 3.1 percent, is still well below the state average of 4.4 percent,' she said.

Superintendent Jack Musser said his district 'could always do better' in its quest to keep students in school.

'Student retention is a critical issue for us,' Musser said. 'We need to keep young people in school - there's no doubt about that.'

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