Despite slight drop, city grad rates still higher than state

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During Monday’s Providence Grad Nation Summit, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT released their newest issue brief, “Improving High School Graduation Rates in Rhode Island,” which showed Warwick’s graduation rate had dropped slightly from 2011 to 2012 but was still higher than the state average.

Statewide, KIDS COUNT reported that the statewide graduation rate has been steadily increasing for a number of years, from 70 percent in 2007 to 77 percent for the Class of 2012. Despite this increase, the issue brief also pointed out that there are still disparities; the graduation rate for English language learners (66 percent), students with disabilities (59 percent), low-income students (66 percent) and other subgroups still remain lower than their peers.

With a 2012 graduating class of 848, Warwick saw a graduation rate of 79 percent, a dropout rate of 9 percent, a GED rate of 6 percent and 6 percent of students staying in high school past four years.

“It still should be higher,” said Superintendent Richard D’Agostino, who said the district is attempting to tune into what the students need to graduate on time and individualizing that attention as much as possible. Many students sit down with guidance counselors to create individual plans starting in sixth grade.

“It makes it easier; the students can see the blueprint,” said D’Agostino. “Everyone is more engaged. Each step has been spelled out.”

Although Warwick’s graduation rate is still higher than the state average, it decreased slightly from the overall graduation rate for the Class of 2011, which was 82 percent. But D’Agostino also pointed out that for the Class of 2010, the rate was 75 percent, so there has been a lot of change over the past few years.

“It depends on the cohort, the students in the class,” said D’Agostino, adding that shifts in the size of graduating classes from year to year can also cause a change in percentage rates.

Graduation rates for the Class of 2007 on are calculated using a cohort formula. Using state-assigned student identification numbers, the number of students who graduate with a standard diploma in four years is divided by the total number of students in the same cohort who entered ninth grade together, taking into account any students who left or came into the school district over the four years.

The KIDS COUNT issue brief also broke the graduation rate down by school for 2012.

Pilgrim High School had a size of 291 seniors with a graduation rate of 80 percent, dropout rate of 10 percent, GED rate of 3 percent and 7 percent of students remaining in school past four years.

Toll Gate High School had a class of 270 students with a graduation rate of 86 percent, a dropout rate of 8 percent, GED rate of 1 percent and only 4 percent of students staying longer than four years.

Warwick Veterans Memorial High School had a class size of 271 with a graduation rate of 73 percent, dropout rate of 8 percent, GED rate of 14 percent and 4 percent of students staying longer than four years.

Vets principal Gerry Habershaw was pleased to hear how high graduation rates were, even with the added pressure put on graduation, such as senior projects and portfolios.

“It’s becoming more difficult to graduate,” said Habershaw. “It’s amazing rates have improved.”

Toll Gate Principal Stephen Chrabaszcz said Toll Gate’s “Project Graduation” is part of the reason his school saw such a high graduation rate. The school’s Graduation By Proficiency coordinator, Michelle Landrie, runs the program.

“She calls seniors in jeopardy into her office at the start to the school year and connects with them to provide assistance,” said Chrabaszcz. “Then, around this time of year, she calls parents when it is still early enough to help.”

He said most of the time when Landrie explains to the parents that their child is at risk of not graduating they have no idea. Landrie then maintains constant contact and support to help a student make it to graduation.

D’Agostino acknowleged that there is a long list of factors that can lead to a successful graduation or cause a student to dropout, including issues at home or in school, parent involvement and the student’s own personality and drive to succeed.

“The individuals drive themselves,” added D’Agostino, giving the example of some of Warwick’s talented student musicians being especially motivated to succeed and get into a top music school such as Berklee or a conservatory.

KIDS COUNT provided a list of warning signs that should be monitored to prevent students from making the choice to drop out of school. Their report says that making that decision is a long process and warning signs include reading below grade level at the end of grade 3, poor course performance, an ongoing pattern of absenteeism or tardiness, multiple suspensions, and other behavioral problems. During the academic year 2011-2012, 1,867 high school students dropped out, along with 204 seventh and eighth graders.

Although there is no Rhode Island-based data, KIDS COUNT reported that nationwide pregnant or parenting students, students in foster care, students in the juvenile justice system, and homeless or runaway students are also more likely to drop out.

D’Agostino believes that the assistance of supportive parents, teachers, faculty members and administrators can only add to an individual’s successful graduation from high school.

Habershaw said the staff at Vets is in almost constant communication with students to keep them on track for graduation.

“We really are on top of kids, keeping track of progress on e-portfolios and everything,” he said.

Constant communication with parents is also key, creating a united group with the goal of helping students graduate.

Chrabaszcz also believes communication is key, making use of the ConnectEd system almost every night.

“I can contact every parent with a message every night,” he said. “You need communication. Students don’t go home and tell their parents everything. They have jobs and sports and everything, and some parents work second shift.”

Chrabaszcz says he uses the system to contact parents regularly about things going on in the school or with their student to the point that parents probably hear from him more often than their children.

He also said having the ability to keep track of the students’ progress and meet with them when it is still early enough for them to turn the situation around and graduate on time is key.

The support of his teachers is also key.

“We brought in people who wanted to communicate with students,” said Chrabaszcz. “It’s all about the kids. I want to make sure I do the right thing.”

He always wants to be able to send the message to parents and students that it is not too late.

“I’m always willing to communicate with my students,” said Chrabaszcz.

D’Agostino also believes the trend of improved graduation rates throughout the state will continue because many of these risk factors can be tracked.

“They’re geared to looking at the individual,” said D’Agostino naming the attendance record and the use of an early warning system to catch at-risk students early.

He also said individual schools can provide special programming such as academies to provide more opportunities and encourage students to stay in school.

Vets has four such academies that Habershaw believes does help keep kids on track to graduate. Juniors and seniors can be part of the Leadership and Bio-Tech academies, and sophomores can join the Athletic Academy. Because the biggest retention rate is with ninth graders, the Career Tech Academy was created to get freshmen that would benefit from the program in the Warwick Career and Tech School through the first year of high school so they can join their desired vocational program as a sophomore.

Habershaw said the benefit of the academies is the fact that it is a small learning community.

“When the school gets too big, you lose kids,” said Habershaw. “In smaller communities, you can keep track of them.”

But D’Agostino also said the effort cannot start when students enter ninth grade.

“It just doesn’t start with high school; it’s the whole way through,” said D’Agostino, explaining that the message to stay in school must start in elementary school. “They are more likely to see the light and realize how important getting an education is for their future.”

KIDS COUNT recommended increased access to high-quality early education programs, early warning signs tracking, preparing students to transition to high school, closing achievement gaps and providing multiple pathways to graduation (accelerated programs, online instruction, partnerships with adult education programs, etc.) as possible recommendations to improve graduation rates further.

According to the brief, individuals with a high school diploma are more likely to be employed with a higher income than individuals who don’t. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to live in poverty, receive public assistance, be involved in criminal activity, have poor physical or emotional health, and have a shorter lifespan.

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