Last month's newspaper headlines about dropout rates at Albuquerque Public Schools going down are good news. The drop out problem, however, is not an issue that can be retired and forever be done with. Continuously responding to it has to become part of our expectations for our public schools.
During his recent appearance highlighting education issues at Longfellow Elementary School, presumed Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry noted that nationally the dropout rates, particularly for minority high school students, are scandalous, approaching 30 percent. The recently announced APS rates are lower than that which is indeed good news.
It was not very many years ago that the data Kerry cited would also have been true for our local high schools. There is a new get-serious attitude at APS that deserves to be recognized and praised.
But keep in mind that if a school loses 5 percent of its students from each secondary grade every year, that over the four-year span that class spends in high school, the cumulative figure would actually be 20 percent dropping out.
The concern is to find better ways to reach our teenagers and to turn them on to learning so that they will graduate. So ultimately they will, upon graduation, actually possess employable skills, or at least skills that further technical or academic training can build on.
It is meeting this latter goal that ought to be the true measure of our school's accomplishments, not some numeric rating derived from a national system of testing that has been widely shown to be irrelevant, inaccurate and thoroughly subject to manipulation.
Those hopeful headlines raise a question. What exactly is APS doing differently now that is producing the lower drop out figures?
We might have to do some real digging to find the answers, but this discovery is crucial to guide future efforts at the schools. From my observations there seems to be three distinct trends in this community that are making the difference. They should be continued. Better, they are directions that need to be reinforced.
First, some of our high schools are smaller than they used to be. Yes, I understand there is an irrational segment of Albuquerque's parents, teachers and sports officials who look at 1,400 students at Del Norte or 1,600 at Albuquerque High and decide that efforts should be made to increase the student populations at those schools. Duh!
A 1,400 student body is not too small, however, for learning to take place. In fact, that number might actually still be too big for the personal scale that optimizes the education process. Excellent private schools would avoid reaching that big an enrollment. So should excellent public schools.
When coaches complain about having to compete against schools twice their size on the football field, the sound administrative response should be to aim to reduce the population at La Cueva, Cibola and the other bloated campus behemoths, not to increase Del Norte or Albuquerque High's enrollment. Besides, Artesia High is a 4A school, far smaller than the 5A schools which it regularly whomps on the gridiron, so the benefits of a large student pool shouldn't be exaggerated.
Smaller student bodies mean more contact with teachers, counselors and other adult mentors. Absences are noticed right away. Parents are known as individuals, not as faceless, nameless numbers. It is not hard to understand why dropping out isn't as likely to occur at a small school.
The second shift within APS is due to the influence of the Enlace program and its emphasis on parental involvement—even of high school age students. It isn't coincidental that the dropout rates have fallen fastest in those high schools which are also included in the Enlace effort (funded by the Kellogg Foundation and focusing on Hispanic success in the schools).
Enlace has provided funding for family involvement centers at three schools, creating places where parents can get the information they need not only about their child's situation academically, but about how to become better involved in their learning. And the new funding for truancy reduction should also funnel additional resources into these family involvement approaches.
Finally, and perhaps the most important factor in shrinking the dropout rate, is the rapid growth in charter schools within APS. Several of these alternative public schools focus their efforts on reclaiming students who have already dropped out or who are on the verge of taking that step.
When you add the numbers just for those enrolled in Charter Vocational, Robert F. Kennedy (of which I am a board member), Los Puentes, Nuestros Valores and South Valley Academy, the total working toward diplomas in those small, flexible and community-based schools is practically the same as the over-all reduction in dropouts within the District.
It is ironic that the District resisted charters for so long. Now there is a new sense of cooperation and willingness to work with them that may have been forced on APS by the state education department but that is producing good results nonetheless.
The marriage between charters and APS may have been a shotgun wedding but the long-term benefits are certainly to the community's advantage. Now if the folks running APS would just start copying some of the flexible scheduling, vocational opportunities and individualized instruction that the charters have piloted, maybe the dropout problem would be erased completely.