Public district graduation rates deserve closer look
A version of this analysis appeared October 28, 2007, as an op-ed in the Dayton Daily News (see here).
Charter schools in Ohio are the black sheep of public education. The governor made clear he doesn't like them with his inaugural state budget that sought to wipe out charters by loading on new regulations and cutting funding. Using an oddball legal strategy, the state attorney general has filed lawsuits to close three charters in Dayton and he promises action against as many as 30 others. Charter schools are badmouthed by many district officials and blamed for the financial woes facing urban school districts. Teacher unions spend much time and money plotting the demise of these schools and applauding any setbacks they face.
So, when evidence emerges that charters have actually helped districts and benefited needy students, it is not surprising that this news goes largely unreported. But this is exactly what has happened when it comes to rising graduation rates in urban school districts. Charters have played a critical role in helping some urban districts improve their high school graduation rates. Consider the numbers.
Dropout recovery charter schools first opened in the Buckeye State in the 1999-2000 school year. These schools serve students aged 16 to 22 who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. When a student enrolls in one of these dropout recovery schools, that student is not considered a "dropout" in his/her home district.
City by city, enrollment in dropout recovery charter schools can be significant. In Dayton, for example, 920 students attended these schools in 2005-2006, a number equivalent to 29.2 percent of the district's 10th-12th grade enrollment that year. (To put this number in perspective, the 2005-2006 enrollment in Cleveland dropout recovery charter schools was equivalent to 14 percent of that district's 10th-12th grade enrollment; in Cincinnati it was 10.9 percent; in Columbus it was 1.8 percent.) It cannot be assumed that all of those students would otherwise have been enrolled in or dropped out of Dayton Public Schools. However, it is hard to deny that the district's graduation rate benefited mightily from these students having an education choice besides quitting a DPS school.
There are also trends between improved graduation rates and increased enrollment in dropout recovery charter schools. Enrollment in such schools in Dayton increased from 150 students in 2000-2001 to 920 students in 2005-2006. During that time, the district's graduation rate rose from 51.1 percent to 79.5 percent. From 2000-2001 to 2004-2005, Cleveland Municipal Schools' graduation rate increased from 36.1 percent to 51.8 percent just as enrollment in Cleveland dropout recovery charter schools jumped from 322 students to 1,889 students. In the Queen City, the district's graduation rate improved from 57.6 percent in 2000-2001 to 77 percent in 2004-2005; during that time, enrollment in dropout recovery charter schools in Cincinnati increased from 313 students to 1,024 students.
Smart school district officials know the benefits of education choices. Not surprisingly, a growing number of Ohio districts have welcomed dropout recovery schools, either as in-house programs (see here) or district-sponsored charters (see here). Last December, the Columbus Public Schools Education Foundation announced a $2 million matching grant from Limited Brands to provide for innovative educational programs, activities, and projects that the district's traditional school funding cannot afford. The first idea put forth by the foundation chairwoman and the district superintendent was a dropout recovery program modeled after the ISUS Institutes in Dayton (see here).
During this school board election season, when candidates pander to teacher unions by complaining about charter schools, it is important to remember the positive impact of charters on young people who are at risk of leaving school altogether. Dropout recovery schools take on the most at-risk students who have not been successful in traditional district schools. These students are prime candidates for dropping out and, thus, negatively impacting the district's dropout and graduation rates.
Districts officials should acknowledge the work and contribution of these schools and support the successful ones.
See also: "Study of nation's high schools: Columbus on list of ‘drop-out factories'" from the October 30, 2007, Columbus Dispatch.