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Washington Co. school officials say dropout study is misleading

November 05, 2007|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

WASHINGTON COUNTY -One Washington County public school was listed among about 1,700 schools nationwide being called "dropout factories," despite having the lowest dropout rate in the county.

Washington County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Instruction Donna Hanlin said the recent study of dropout rates by Johns Hopkins University researchers is misleading.

According to the study, Hancock Middle-Senior High School has a 58 percent retention rate, meaning that 58 percent of the school's students make it from freshman to senior year. The school has about 350 students in grades six through 12.

The label of "dropout factory" was given to schools that have 60 percent fewer students in their senior classes than began as freshmen.

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According to Maryland State Department of Education data, only 0.46 percent of Hancock-Middle Senior High's students dropped out in 2007, and in 2006, no students dropped out.

"Hancock is clearly not a dropout factory," Hanlin said.

She has been talking with Johns Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz, and said the study did not distinguish between students who transfer to other schools within Washington County or out of state.

Many Hancock Middle-Senior High students transfer to Washington County Technical High School in their junior year, Hanlin said.

"It's definitely not accurate," she said of the label researchers gave the school. "It's misleading, and it's definitely not the case with Hancock. We're proud of the results that Hancock has achieved."

Researchers said that while some students transferred, most dropped out. The data assessed senior classes for three years in a row to study the retention rates, according to The Associated Press.

Hanlin said she is continuing to communicate with Balfanz about Hancock's inclusion in the list of troubled schools.

The study classified 13 schools in Maryland as "dropout factories," five of those in Baltimore City. Seventeen Pennsylvania schools and four in West Virginia received that distinction. No other Tri-State-area school was named on the list.

Overall, Washington County Public Schools' dropout rate has lingered at about 2 percent since 2003, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. In 2007, 2.54 percent of students dropped out of school, up slightly from 2006, when 2.18 percent of students left before graduation, according to state data.

In 2005, the dropout rate in Washington County was at at least a 12-year low, when only 1.87 percent of students dropped out.

The percentage of students leaving high school before graduation was as high as 5.55 percent in 2000, but Hanlin said a lot of work has been done to reduce that number.

"We've dug deep into every individual student's needs," she said. "It's really made a difference."

Hanlin said that each school has a support team that works to identify students who might be at risk for dropping out of high school. These factors can include academic success, behavioral issues and attendance.

Support teams have been in schools for years, she said, but the process of helping individual students was fine-tuned about two years ago.

"We think we have a better idea of how that process should work, which is collaboratively and proactively instead of reactive with students," Hanlin said.

Student intervention specialists also are in each of the secondary schools, developing relationships with students who might need additional support. For at-risk students, having a one-on-one connection with at least one adult who cares about their success can make a difference, Hanlin said.

"We don't treat students as numbers where we need to get the rate to a certain percentage," said schools spokesman Will Kauffman. "We're working with them in particular situations, getting answers for them when they may not be getting any."

Hanlin said that offering students choices and challenging them also has been proven to keep students in school.

Kauffman said the intensive one-on-one work being done with students is paying off.

"It's not about these numbers," Kauffman said. "It's about these kids staying in school, giving them opportunities they wouldn't have if they dropped out."

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