Pa. high school dropout rate hits recent low

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To combat dropout rates, the Laurel Highlands School District requires that students complete exit interviews before they leave ahead of graduation.

"Once they went through the exit interview, they realized staying in school was going to be the better option for them," said Randy Miller, the district's director of curriculum and instruction.

Laurel Highlands is part of a statewide pattern of dropout reduction.

Dropout rates in Pennsylvania public high schools have reached their lowest point since 2003-04, according to a new federal report.

The conclusion, released by the National Center for Education Statistics last week, is based on the event dropout rate, which describes the proportion of students who drop out in a single year.

The data show that Pennsylvania's event dropout rate in grades 9-12 fell to 2.1 percent in 2009-10, down from 2.3 percent in 2008-09 and 3.2 percent in 2002-03.

Pennsylvania also showed improvement on a related measure, the averaged freshman graduation rate -- an estimated percentage of students who graduate within four years of starting the ninth grade. In this case, the rate grew, from 80.5 percent in 2008-09 to 84.1 percent in 2009-10.

On that measure, Pennsylvania ranks eighth nationally, where the rate ranges from 57.8 percent in Nevada to 91.4 percent in Vermont. The national average is 78.2 percent.

The federal figures for Pennsylvania show higher dropout rates than those reported on the state Department of Education's website. That's because the state bases its event rate on grades 7-12, while the federal report uses grades 9-12. The federal report shows a 2009-10 dropout rate of 2.1 percent compared with the 1.5 percent state figure.

At Laurel Highlands, the decline in dropouts is more dramatic. Mr. Miller confirmed that in 2011, the district reported 35 dropouts. By 2012, that number dropped to four. "We've seen a world of difference with [the exit interview] process," he said.

Education officials credit the decrease in dropouts with more engaging curricula, programs designed to target at-risk students and better data collection methods that allow school officials to understand why specific students dropped out.

"What you are seeing is increased awareness to student achievement and accountability for schools," said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education. "Schools, parents and students are more engaged to provide assistance to students to help them graduate high school."

This is precisely what Bart Rocco, the superintendent of the Elizabeth Forward School District, aims to do. He encourages guidance counselors, principals and faculty to identify students who are at risk of dropping out, so they can individually tailor an appropriate response for each student.

"We look at how kids are doing in school and individualize as much as we can," he said. Mr. Rocco said ensuring students build positive relationships with adults in the school community can be a successful dropout reduction strategy.

Although Mr. Rocco pays attention to dropout rates in his district, he cautioned against reading too much into the data because all districts may not count dropouts in exactly the same way.

Nonetheless, Mr. Rocco becomes concerned if even a single student drops out of a school in his district. "The way I look at it: If we lose one, we've lost."

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Alex Zimmerman: 412-263-3909 or azimmerman@post-gazette.com; Twitter @AGZimmerman.


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