Stockton corrals dropouts to school

In a city wracked by recession, Stockton Unified has succeeded in substantially lowering its high school dropout rate. Its improvement was singled out this week in the national report “Building a Grad Nation.”

Stockton provided one of the few pieces of good news about California in the report, which was published by the non-profit policy group Civic Enterprises, and America’s Promise Alliance, which was started by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

After many years of falling, the national graduation rate rose from 72 percent  in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008. In California it fell again, from 72.7 percent in 2002 to 71.2 percent in 2008. Nationwide, 120,000 more students graduated in 2008 compared with 2002. In California, there were 7,898 fewer graduates in 2008 than in 2002.

Stockton was one of only six urban areas to increase its “Promoting Power Ratio” between 17 and 25 percentage points. A number related to the dropout rate, it measures the ratio of the number of 12th graders in a school to the number of 9th graders three years previously. The other cities were Newark, New York City, Des Moines, Akron, and Tampa/Hillsborough.

According to state figures, in 2006-07, Stockton had one of the highest, if not the highest, dropout rates in California. Its one-year high school dropout rate of 14.6 percent – 9 percentage points above the state average – projected to a four-year rate of more than 50 percent. A year later, the rate fell to 4.4 percent, below the state’s average of 4.9 percent.

One reason is ROY (Reclaiming Our Youth), a district initiative that trained counselors and dropout prevention officers, sent them out on the streets to track down dropouts, and then offered the dropouts options to return to school.

Verifying where the students had gone – out of state, to other schools accounted for a big part of the lowered dropout rate. CALPADS, the statewide data system that assigns every student a unique identifier, should make this task easier for every district. But Stockton Unified also was to coax several hundred students back to school, by offering them alternatives to match their circumstances: an alternative high school, a program for teenage mothers to meet their schedules, and more vocational offerings, according to Julia Penn, assistant superintendent for student services.

The district also got creative with seniors who, short 8 to 10 graduation credits, would have dropped out, knowing they wouldn’t get a diploma. These students were allowed to walk during down the aisle at graduation, by signing a contract pledging to complete their course work during the summer. That looked like a dicey move, but students have followed through: More than 90 percent have taken the courses and passed during the past two years.

The district also broke up its three comprehensive high schools serving 2,500 to 3,200 students, with the opening of a fourth comprehensive high school and the creation of four small schools, each serving 350 students, each with a different a focus: business and law, environmental technology, building trades. Fifth-year seniors attended a continuation high school.

Perhaps reflecting bad data, Stockton’s graduation rate has fluctuated wildly over the past several years, from 89 percent in 2005-06 to 53 percent in 2006-07. But, following the high school reforms, it rose 12 percentage points, to 65 percent in 2007-08, the last year on record.

Building a Grad Nation examines what other states, starting with Tennessee and New York, did to raise their graduation rates over the past six years. The nation is still far from the national goal of 90 percent graduation rate by 2020.