Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

St. Joseph County schools address dropout problems

By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service

LANSING – Some St. Joseph County high schools are seeing increases in dropout rates although the state’s rate has declined by 3 percent.

For example, White Pigeon Junior-Senior High School experienced a big jump from 2008 to 2009, going from 1.3 to 7.94 percent. The district’s superintendent questions the accuracy of those figures from the state Budget Office’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.

In Sturgis, the dropout rate rose from 6.82 percent in 2008 to 6.94 in 2009, according to Assistant Superintendent Julie Evans.

Both schools remain well below the 11 percent state average.

White Pigeon Community Schools Superintendent Ronald Drzewicki said he’s mystified that his school apparently moved in the opposite direction.

“The way it’s all reported is unbelievably confusing,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“If you take our 87.3 four-year graduation rate and add that to 7.94, you don’t get 100. How they figure that 7.94 percent I don’t know.”

Drzewicki said his school’s rate is better measured in numbers of students instead of percentages.

“For us, the usual rate is roughly one kid,” he said. “We have about 60 kids in a typical graduation class, so one kid counts for almost 2 percent.”

Kerry Birmingham, public information officer for the Michigan Education Association (MEA) – the state’s largest union of teachers and other public school employees – said a 2008 MEA study showed that students value connections in the classroom.

“We talked to students and teachers and parents and principals and everyone we could to try and figure out what was causing students to drop out,” she said. She said the top indicator of what makes a difference in a student staying is the involvement of caring adults.

Evans said that kind of involvement happens in Sturgis.

“We’re a smaller school and we work hard to stay connected with kids,” she said. “We focus a lot on our dropout rate in terms of doing our very best with students. We don’t want to see anybody not graduate.”

Evans said the school has a “credit recovery program” that helps students in academic trouble to meet graduation requirements.

Drzewicki said his school works hard to connect with students, too. “We build strong relationships with our kids,” he said. “The fact that we’re a small school helps.”

Like Sturgis, White Pigeon reaches out to students when they struggle.

“Our curriculum is responsive,” Drzewicki said, “meaning that if a kid’s not understanding something or struggling in a particular class, we respond to that quickly. We get kids remedial help if needed and we get kids into different classes if needed.”

Drzewicki also credits the school’s standards for its high graduation rate.

“We’re rigorous and we have high expectations,” he said. “When you’ve got quality teachers and quality instruction, kids are getting the content that they need. Typically, then, kids are successful in classes.”

The MEA’s Birmingham said Michigan’s dropout rate could rise due to the education funding crisis.

“These numbers, in many cases, are a year behind and don’t reflect a lot of the budget cuts and layoffs we’re seeing right now,” she said.

Evans shared that sentiment.

“Shrinking state dollars affects some of what we’re able to do,” she said. “We’re having to cut teaching positions as well as other positions, so that’s a concern.”

And Drzewicki warned that budget cuts and layoffs could eliminate valuable services, like remedial classes.

Drzewicki said he hopes budget cuts won’t hurt White Pigeon students but said the state’s dropout rate will worsen if state aid continues to drop.

“You’re making class sizes larger, which makes it more difficult to provide instruction,” he said. “It’s going to have impact. Whether it impacts us locally is hard to say, but it’s certainly going to impact the state in general.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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