Tinkering with the high school graduation rate

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After getting kicked out of high school, Shawn Williams (l.) and Raynard Gillespie got a second chance at Camelot, a new alternative school.  The two friends plan to attend college together and support each other.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

After getting kicked out of high school, Shawn Williams (l.) and Raynard Gillespie got a second chance at Camelot, a new alternative school. The two friends plan to attend college together and support each other.

When Chad Adams took over the helm of Sullivan High School last year, he found that records were in disarray and students who were desperately behind in credits lingered on the rolls.

Adams put together a list of over-age, under-credited students, pulled them into his office, and laid out their options: They could come to a full day of school, plus go to night school three days a week and to Saturday school to make up credits.

Or they could enroll in one of the new alternative schools opened by private, non-profit operator Pathways. Pathways only requires students to go to school for half a day and once students are used to the workbooks and online courses that are the staples of the curriculum, attendance is only required twice a week.

If the students went to Pathways, Adams monitored their progress. “The way that I perceive it, and the reason that it’s so important for me to know how they’re doing at that school, is I know they’re getting closer to graduation and that affects my graduation rate,” he says. “[But if] they stay here, they dig in a hole, get themselves in more trouble and then drop out.”

Pathways is one of four companies that have opened up 15 new schools in Chicago in recent years amid a rapid expansion of alternative schools that will cost the district $50 million this year. The new crop of schools offer students a way to quickly earn credits—appealing to students who are far behind but raising questions about the quality of education they receive. Part 1  of a three-part series from a joint Catalyst Chicago/WBEZ investigation examined these questions of quality. (You can listed to WBEZ reporter Becky Vevea’s part 2 here.)

The schools, newly dubbed “options schools” by the district, are likely to play a major role as CPS aims to raise the graduation rate to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stated goal of 85 percent.

CPS, unlike the state, includes students who complete an alternative school in its graduation rate. The alternative schools have played a part in recent improvements: Since 2011, the number of alternative school graduates rose by about 25 percent and the total number of graduates rose 10 percent. About 4 percent of the total graduates in 2014 were from alternative schools.

Yet it is debatable whether alternative school graduates should be included in the formula. Meanwhile, some educators worry that the new options schools create too much incentive to push students out: Students don’t have to be dropouts to attend, as is required at traditional alternative schools, and they get a diploma that states that they graduated from their home school—helping to boost that school’s performance even though the student wasn’t enrolled.

Jack Wuest, the longtime executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, is one educator who worries that under-achieving students will be pressured to leave without being given a chance to redeem themselves.

“It needs to be monitored pretty closely,” Wuest says. “It is a delicate balance. There is a fine line between dumping and helping.”

Last, best chance

CPS officials insist that the options schools are intended to help the thousands of dropouts who desperately need a diploma and are not intended to pad the graduation rate. In some cases, alternative programs are indeed the answer for some students.

Raynard Gillispie, 20, and Shawn Williams, 18, attend the Englewood campus of Camelot Schools, which offers an eight-hour school day and less online work. They say that without a high school degree, they would feel hopeless, trapped in poor neighborhoods with low-wage jobs.

The two good friends left their former high schools—Gillispie from Crane and Williams from Simeon—because they were getting into fights and other trouble.

“I got kicked out, got shot and then came here,” Gillispie says.

They say Camelot’s small, highly structured environment has helped them to become leaders and to focus on their future. “It has given me a second chance,” Gillespie says.

Adams says it is important not to lose sight of what a diploma means for a student. “I’ve been around enough gang members and enough high poverty children to know that that diploma is a golden ticket,” he says.

Behind the numbers

To understand how the options schools could impact the graduation rate, it’s important to know how the district calculates it: by tracking students as a group from their freshman year. This method, called the cohort rate, is designed to make schools and the general public aware of how well high schools hang on to freshmen and help them graduate.

But the rate can easily be altered by changing the definition of a dropout or a graduate, as noted in a 2005 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

“Depending on how the terms “graduate,” “transfer,” and “drop out” are defined, and depending on who is included in the base population of potential graduates, graduation and dropout rates can vary considerably,” the report reads.

That’s exactly what happened in 2007, when district officials quietly decided to include students who completed an alternative school program, rather than to count those students as dropouts. A year later, in 2008, the number of graduates jumped by 1,600 students—more than it had in at least the last 15 years.

To this day, neither the Consortium nor the Illinois State Board of Education includes alternative school graduates in their calculations. (CPS is still counting students who go to GED programs as dropouts.)

“We haven’t verified that the credential and the quality of instruction is equivalent to that of a regular high school,” says Elaine Allensworth, the director of the Consortium.

The state also uses a four-year cohort graduation rate, rather than the five-year rate that CPS uses. About 45 percent of the additional graduates included in the five-year rate are from alternative schools, according to experts.

The end result of this numbers game is that the graduation rate tends to hide the fact that a good number of students start as freshmen at a school, don’t wind up walking across the stage to get their diploma at the same school—but nevertheless get counted as one of that school’s graduates.

One example is Taft High. In the 2008-2009 school year, 655 freshmen enrolled and ostensibly became the cohort for the district’s 2013-2014 five-year graduation rate. The school counted 145 students as having transferred out, died or been incarcerated, and the original cohort was adjusted down to 510 students. Overall, in CPS, the difference between the freshmen in the original cohort and those in the adjusted cohort is growing as the district verifies more transfers.

Altogether, 428 students graduated within five years–65 percent of the original group of freshmen. Of those 428, 35 students graduated from schools other than Taft, half of them from alternative schools.

But because CPS’ five-year graduation rate takes into account how many graduated from the adjusted cohort of 510 students, Taft’s official rate is 85 percent.

Taner Kapan and Ladyanna Barajas say they left Taft after four years with less than half the credits they would need to graduate. Ladyanna got pregnant and Tanner started working in earnest at his family’s restaurant. The baby made the two of them want to go back to school, but it would have been near impossible given their responsibilities.

They came to Ombudsman, an options school that relies largely on online work. Less than a year after signing up at Ombudsman’s West Side campus, Ladyanna completed all her credits and Tanner is almost done. Ladyanna notes how amazing that is: “In my four years at Taft, I only made 10 credits,” she points out.

Taner says that “tons” of his classmates also dropped out, many of them ending up at the Ombudsman on the North Side.

Who’s a real dropout?

Taner and Ladyanna’s experience isn’t unique. Catalyst Chicago and WBEZ found that students had a wide range of experiences in school before landing at one of the options schools.

Less than half of all students in alternative schools (including options schools) are overage and far behind in credits—that is, between 17 and 19 years old with fewer than 12 credits. Another 22 percent are either on-track to graduate; younger than 16; or between 18 and 20 but only needing a few credits to graduate.

About 16 percent come from charters; CPS has no information about their credit status. Charter schools often have higher graduation requirements.

Kyle Johnson is one example. Kyle says he and some of his friends enrolled in Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy after leaving Urban Prep, which requires 28 credits to graduate, compared to 24 in a traditional CPS school. Kyle had failed a few classes and says staff told him at the end of his sophomore year that there was no way he could graduate from Urban Prep and suggested he just leave.

Now, instead of spending the next two years in high school, Kyle plans to finish by this June at Bridgescape.

Lanae Mitchell wasn’t off-track at all and had no intention of dropping out. But her school, Chicago Talent Development Charter School, closed at the end of last year.

She had planned to go to Marine Military Academy, but after two days there this September, she knew it wasn’t for her. Chicago Talent was located in the old Crane High School, but that school was being phased out and had only seniors remaining on the rolls. The new Crane had only freshmen and sophomores.

Lanae is a junior. She comes to Bridgescape in the morning. In the afternoon, she goes to Crane where she is on the drill team.

“I wanted to stay at Crane,” she says. “But the principal said I couldn’t.”

This story was co-reported with WBEZ’s Becky Vevea.