Dropout dilemma

GREENFIELD — It’s discouraging, to say the least.

Greenfield-Central High School’s graduation rate has been among the lowest in central Indiana in recent history, consistently falling below the state benchmark of 90 percent.

It’s a trend local administrators have been trying to buck, putting credit-recovery programs in place and what they say is a personal touch to motivating teens to reach for that diploma.

But as official rates are announced by the Indiana Department of Education, year after year, there’s another blow of disappointment and a concern for what it might mean for the community.

While the tassels have turned for the Class of 2015, it will be months before official numbers are released again. But that’s not stopping school officials and community leaders from wondering why the rates have historically been low and what more could be done to prevent students from dropping out of school.

‘Realities that can be overcome’

A year ago, Madison Barrett didn’t think she would graduate, having to make up English credits through an online recovery program.

But June 6 she joined her class at commencement. The thoughts raced through her head:

“I can’t believe I’m here.”

“I hope I don’t fall off the stage.”

Barrett is among the school’s success stories. But too many others are not making it.

The 2014 graduation rate for Greenfield-Central was 88.6 percent, below the state average of 89.8 percent and the lowest in the county. Of 13 high schools surrounding Greenfield, the high school ranked third-lowest, above schools in Indianapolis and Lawrence.

Comparing Greenfield-Central to other schools in Hancock County is one thing. Comparing it to schools in Shelbyville, New Castle, Pendleton and east Indianapolis is another, Superintendent Harold Olin said.

Olin says Greenfield has a more transient population than the three other county schools — families moving in and out. With 34 percent of district families eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, the rate higher than at any other Hancock County school.

But other communities with similar demographics have a higher graduation rate, proving such obstacles are “realities that can be overcome,” Olin said.

“Each of these students needs an advocate. It’s disappointing when students are dropping out at an early age and parents are signing off on that,” Olin said. “The ticket out of poverty is education.”

So programs are in place. Cougar Café helps students recover the credits from failed or missed classes. Graduation coaches work one-on-one with students at risk for dropping out of school. Freshman Forum is set up for students in jeopardy of missing credits, where they spend twice as much time in math and English classes.

Even at the elementary and junior high levels, “response to intervention” programs are in place, giving extra tutoring to students who are falling behind academically.

But why does the rate continue to be low? It’s a question no one seems able to answer.

Maybe the generation before also dropped out, and these students are following in their parents’ footsteps, Olin said.

“The difference is, 30 years ago you could drop out and still get a job,” Olin said. “It really boils down to parental expectations. Don’t tell your student at 18, ‘You’re on your own.’ Tell them from the time they can talk that they’re going to graduate from high school and go beyond.”

Still, Olin said he knows educators can’t ignore their responsibilities, and guidance comes from the top.

Olin is wrapping up his first year as head of Greenfield-Central schools. A list of goals hangs on the wall of his office: By 2017, reach 90 percent graduation rate; at least 50 percent of students should earn an academic honors diploma.

Nearly half of the high school’s graduates already receive an academic honors diploma, Olin points out. There are also programs in place for advanced students, from college credits to mentorships to engineering and aeronautics programs.

But how to reach that 12 percent of students who drop out?

‘A long-term effect’

Greenfield-Central’s graduation rate is on the radar of not only school administrators but also community leaders. Ray Richardson, a former state representative who has focused on education, agrees the school has solid programs for high-achieving students.

But the ones for those who are struggling are just getting underway, Richardson said, and the children who are dropping out now are likely following in their parents’ footsteps.

Richardson points to a 2006 study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which found roughly 1 million American students drop out of high school a year, earning $9,200 less per year than high school graduates and about $1 million less over a lifetime than college graduates.

The study found that dropouts who moved into a life of crime and drugs cost taxpayers between $1.7 million and $2 million over a lifetime.

“The cost on taxpayers alone is going to be huge — food stamps, jail and all that kind of stuff — and the kids will never lead a satisfactory life,” Richardson said.

Former state Sen. Beverly Gard shares Richardson’s concerns.

“If this continues, I think it’s going to have a long-term effect on this community and the viability of this community,” Gard said. “When you have people that are searching for a place to go and live and raise families, … the schools and graduation rates are going to be something they’re going to look at. I think this is something that needs to be addressed on the community level, not just the school level.”

Tracking cohorts

The formula to calculate graduation rates is a complicated one. The freshman class from four years ago represents a “cohort,” and schools subtract students from that class who transfer out of their district; add those who come in; and eliminate those who leave the school for home school or an online academy.

A 2011 investigative series by the Daily Reporter pointed to an alarming number of students — 70 from the Class of 2010 — who left school to be “home-schooled” despite some having no intention of continuing classwork at home.

This made the graduation rate artificially high. The Greenfield-Central school board later acknowledged that 17 students were miscategorized, and that year’s 90.4 percent graduation rate should have been closer to 85 percent.

Richardson is concerned the high school still classifies too many dropouts as home-schooled students and believes the 2014 rate should be lower than reported.

There’s no statewide system in place now for reporting how students in a cohort were classified.

Olin says in the Class of 2014, only 19 students left to be home-schooled. He doesn’t believe that’s unusually high. There were 23 students from the Class of 2014 who dropped out of school, Olin said.

A community graduation task force formed briefly in 2011 to make sure numbers were being reported accurately. High school Principal Steve Bryant said it all boiled down to a difference of reporting students who were home-schooled versus those who attended an online academy or went on to earn an Indiana High School Equivalency Diploma, and now the school reports those in separate categories.

While graduation rates are lower than surrounding schools, Bryant points to a gradual increase in the number of students making it to commencement. Perhaps the programs in place at Greenfield-Central are working, he said.

“At least we are trending; at least we are moving upward,” Bryant said, referring to a 7 percentage point increase since the Class of 2009.

Kim Kile, the high school’s director of guidance, said students who leave school face any number of circumstances, whether it be teen pregnancy or family instability. Kile said they key is providing support for students on the edge.

“This is a constant discussion that goes on between counselors, administrators, teachers, coaches, the Cougar Academy,” she said. “This is getting down to the individual student and their needs; what we can do for that kid and where they are.”

‘They have the potential’

In the final week of his senior year, Class of 2015 graduate Zach Taylor planned to take a selfie with each person who helped him reach the end of the road.

A regular attendee of Cougar Café, Taylor said at the top of that list was teacher Linda Yates.

“All she ever wanted me to do was get my stuff done in here and graduate,” Taylor said. “She really reminds me of my grandmother. It’s like, whenever she speaks, I listen.”

Yates said that, for most of the students on the edge of dropping out, all they need is a different approach.

“They have the potential; they just learn in a different way,” Yates said.

She encourages students that they don’t have to go on to college; they can learn a trade.

Two of her students have babies. A few don’t have a home; they were told when they turned 18, they were on their own.

“I’ve had some students that said when they graduate, they’re going to be the first ones to graduate,” Yates said. “I’m thinking, ‘It’s 2015; what are you talking about?’”

And while the educational community can fault parents all they want, Yates said, about half the parents she’s met have called her regularly to ask what they can do to help their child.

But maybe it’s a wider community problem, Bryant said.

The school has a mentorship program set up to help top-notch students reach their career potential, Bryant says. Why not have community volunteers connect with those on the edge?

It’s not a bad idea, said Kathy Locke, member of the Hancock County College Success Coalition. The coalition formed in 2013 to show students their options after high school, pointing out that there are alternatives to traditional four-year degrees.

Locke agrees the Greenfield-Central graduation rate has been consistently low and disappointing.

“If they don’t graduate, they’re not going to be eligible for these other opportunities,” Locke said.

‘Grasping for new ideas’

Another idea floating around is adding an alternative school in the newly purchased church fellowship hall on Wilson Street. Purchased for special education students, the building could be opened up for night classes for high school students in need of credits, Bryant and Olin said.

Richardson hopes a new day is on the horizon for the school district. Maybe it will start with the Class of 2015. Numbers reported to the Indiana Department of Education four years ago indicate this year’s graduating class could reach 90 percent, but the official rate probably won’t come out for months once the department calculates the cohort.

Referring to the poster on his wall to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate by 2017, Olin said perhaps the challenge is to change the culture at the high school. Teachers, students and parents need to be made aware of the resources available to them.

“There’s more we can do,” Olin added. “We’re always trying to think about what the next step is.”

Maybe there should be a program in place to reach out to parents, Gard said.

But educators say some parents are at just as much of a loss as teachers.

“I’ve seen some moms that are just tired of fighting the fight,” said Dan Jack, principal of Greenfield Central Junior High School.

Jack, who was assistant principal at the high school last year, said he doesn’t know if there’s one solution.

It’s frustrating every year the graduation rate doesn’t reach the state benchmark of 90 percent, Jack said. Now he’s working to ensure junior high students at risk of not graduating are reached.

“We’re always grasping for new ideas and trying to improve, Jack said. “I would never sit back and say, ‘We’re doing enough.’”