Kelly’s low rate raises questions, board takes note

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In recent years, Kelly High School, a neighborhood school in Brighton Park, has posted astonishingly low annual dropout rates. For three of the last four years for which data are available, the rates were less than 1.5 percent.

At the same time, Kelly also has posted some of the city’s highest student transfer rates: 33 percent for the class of 1995, 38 percent for the class of 1996, 44 percent for the class of 1997 and 38 percent for the class of 1998.

That combination raises the question of whether Kelly has recorded dropouts as transfers.

Kelly administrators say that the low dropout rate simply confirms that their school has turned around—Kelly is among only a handful of high schools to have gotten off probation. In May 1998, Assistant Principal John Ruskamp told The Chicago Reporter that Kelly “was looked upon as the last place you want to go. But we are now known for a good, safe school.”

This May, Catalyst asked Principal John Gelsomino about the school’s unusual numbers. “There are a lot of bugs out there, but at Kelly, we are as clean as can be,” he said.

But the principal of a Chicago public high school with a student body that is similar to Kelly’s is skeptical. “How do you get a 1 percent dropout rate?” asks the principal, whose own school has a dropout rate of about 10 percent despite academic improvements. More than three-quarters of Kelly’s students are Hispanic; citywide the annual dropout rate for Hispanics was 15.8 percent in 1997-98.

In 1997-98, only one school posted lower annual dropout rates than Kelly’s, Whitney Young, Chicago’s top-scoring high school.

Fred Hess, a Northwestern University research professor, says that, in general, a high transfer rate is a warning flag for hidden dropouts. In a landmark 1985 study, Hess uncovered Chicago public high school students who were recorded as transfers even though the “receiving” schools had closed. More recently, Chicago schools have been found to code students who left for a dropout program as “transfers.” Hess also suspects some schools may be hiding dropouts by recording them as transfers out of the country.

He gives an example. “So a kid leaves a school that serves predominantly Mexican-American kids, and the school [records the student] as transfer to Mexico, and there’s no verification back. That kid should be counted as a dropout as far as that school is concerned. It’s highly unlikely that that’s actually happening in some of these schools, given the number of transfers they’re recording.”

Under Chicago School Board rules, no student is to be marked as a transfer student unless the transfer is confirmed, typically by getting a request from the receiving school for the student’s transcript.

Asked how Kelly verifies a transfer, Gelsomino said the school takes parents’ word that the student will continue to attend school. “If somebody moves to Mexico, how can I keep track of that? We have to take the parents’ word. If the parent tells me they’re going to X and they end up at Y, I can’t be responsible for that.”

However, a Catalyst review of student records (without names) for 1995-96 raises still more questions. That year, Kelly recorded 110 students as having transferred to schools outside Chicago. But 22 of those students were listed as having enrolled in a City Colleges of Chicago GED program or a school that is not accredited by the state; under board policy, those students should have been recorded as dropouts.

Informed of this finding, Gelsomino said, “I will be looking into this personally over the next few months. If there is any level of inconsistency, I am not pleased. If we’re coding them in error, we’ll correct it.”

Kelly’s four-year dropout—21 percent for the class of 1998—also suggests its one-year rates are understated. (However, the school’s 1998 four-year rate is much improved from 1993, when it was 65 percent.)

Philip Hansen, the system’s chief accountability officer, says his office also will be checking the recording of dropouts. “We have become aware of the [dropout] numbers at Kelly High School being so low,” he says. “We will be looking carefully into all our probation schools—and all our high schools generally—in the fall.”