Dropouts and more

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Five years after Franklin County High School was classified as a “dropout factory” in a nationwide survey, it and other local schools are more or less on par with student retention numbers established across Kentucky.

FCHS got a black eye in 2007 because it was among 1,700 schools in the nation and 28 in the commonwealth graduating 60 percent or fewer of their freshmen. Steps the county system has taken since then seem to be helping. The Kentucky Department of Education released new figures last week showing the class of 2011 with a graduation rate of 78 percent statewide. FCHS did slightly better, at 79.3 percent, while Western Hills slipped from 80.5 percent in 2010 to 79.9 percent. The combined rate for all secondary schools in the county system matched the statewide rate in 2011.

The big local gainer was the Frankfort Independent system, which graduated 83.3 percent overall even though Frankfort High’s 72.1 percent was below the state average.

Frankfort Superintendent Rich Crowe was ecstatic. “I think it shows that the progress we’ve been making at trying to keep kids in school,” he told State Journal reporter Katheran Wasson, “and the efforts are paying off.”

Gains by “problem” students in the alternative program were pivotal. They now receive more counseling aimed at motivating them to stay in school and win that diploma.

The Franklin County system has tweaked its alternative education program, too, though not without controversy. About three years ago, some members of the county board expressed reservations about lowering graduation requirements, in what was known as the Phoenix Academy, to reduce dropouts. Pains were taken to pave the path to graduation by allowing “at-risk” students to retake classes online if necessary. The school board eventually did lower the graduation requirement to 22 credits (the state minimum) for the alternative school, compared to 27 and 26 at Western Hills and Franklin County High, respectively.

Chrissy Jones, Harrie Buecker’s successor as county superintendent, credits the alternative unit, now named The Academy, with trimming dropouts. Ideally, she said, dropout prevention should begin in elementary school, before bad study habits become ingrained.

Success and failure are getting harder to judge as the state adjusts its methods of calculating dropout rates. The impetus is to provide more realistic measurements, just as performance testing systems are supposed to render an accurate reading of students’ academic prowess (or lack thereof) even when the truth hurts.

Making high school diplomas more meaningful should trump even dropout prevention. Too many graduates of Kentucky’s secondary schools have arrived on college campuses and in workplaces to find they were inadequately prepared for the more challenging tasks they would inevitably face.

Neither a dropout factory nor a diploma factory is acceptable. Local schools obviously want to keep kids in the classroom, and deserve encouragement to do so, but they should resist any temptation to dumb down the curriculum to expedite this outcome. An easy ticket out of high school won’t make life any easier for undereducated graduates.

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