Joplin school officials estimate that the senior class of 2010 at Joplin High School could be the largest graduating class in 27 years.

More than 450 students could potentially graduate by the time final counts are released next September, Superintendent C.J. Huff recently told the Joplin City Council. The “anticipated” graduation rate — if current numbers hold — could be between 78.5 and 80 percent, said high school Principal Kerry Sachetta.

Huff spoke to the council because the city and the business community have been assisting the school district to encourage teenagers to stay in high school rather than dropping out.

Bottom

“We have been struggling with the graduation rate since at least 1996, when it dropped to nearly 50 percent,” Huff said.

“Not a lot of people knew about that,” Huff said, until the district rolled out its “Graduation Matters” program to emphasize the value of education in improving the futures of students, reducing poverty and homelessness, and creating a more highly skilled work force to attract business.

Joplin’s graduation rate had consistently been about 10 percent below the state average, Huff said.

One tool school districts will be able to use now is a change in state law that requires students to stay in school until age 17, instead of age 16.

Last year, the district had a graduation rate of 75 percent, with 198 dropouts. This year, it looks like there may be 78 dropouts, Huff told the council. “We think we are going to graduate the largest class since 1983.”

Sachetta said the “anticipated” dropout rate this year could be 3.5 to 4 percent.

Alternatives

Those graduates would include students who participated in alternative learning programs like Flex, Missouri Option, work-study, night school and summer school — programs that administrators, students and parents say are helping keep kids in school.

The number of unreconciled dropouts for the 2009-2010 school year stood at 78 through Friday. Last year, the number of unreconciled dropouts was 198 students.

Unreconciled dropouts refers to the number of students who have dropped out during a given school year. The numbers are reconciled during a final count in the fall, and are compared with numbers of kids who re-enroll in a different school, rejoin in an alternative learning program, or come back to the home school.

“You have to give credit to both,” Huff said of the new law and the district’s alternative programs. “Our Missouri Option program is having more success just because you have to be 17 to participate. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but the bottom line is kids can still drop out. But it’s helped us programmatically and given us more tools in the toolbox for us to use.”

The dropout rate is a measure of the total number of high school students who drop out in a given academic year. It does not reflect the graduation rate, which is a statistic that tracks how many students in a specific four-year cohort, such as the class of 2010, made it from freshmen to seniors and received a high school diploma.

The graduation rate has been the only key indicator in a 14-point state assessment program that Joplin has failed to meet. The threshold is 80 percent on graduation rate. Joplin’s average from 2005 to 2009 was 74.42 percent. The statewide average is 85.78 percent, according to Missouri Department for Elementary and Secondary Education statistics.

Joplin’s dropout rate by percentage is also significantly higher than the statewide average through the 2005-2009 school years. Joplin High School on average has had a 6.76 percent dropout rate, compared with 3.88 percent for the rest of Missouri, according to the statistics.

But Huff and other officials say that the trend may be changing.

The lowest number of grade 9-12 dropouts on record goes back to 1989, and the lowest number in the past decade was 79 dropouts in grades 9-12 in 2003, according to Sachetta, the high school principal.

“It’s a big deal because before (the law changed) many kids turned 16 before or just after Christmas break of their sophomore year, so they were at least two years away from graduating,” he said. “Now you can say, ‘Hang with us, we’ve got something for you, and if you’re willing to recommit we can help you get a traditional diploma or work on your skills.’ ”

Missouri Option

One of the programs that is seeing the most direct benefit from the age change is the Missouri Option program. Qualified students must be 17 years of age to participate. They are required to participate in three hours of prep work per day at the high school for a General Educational Development certificate. Students must pass the GED in order to qualify for a diploma.

In addition to raising the age to drop out, Missouri Senate Bill 291 also authorized school districts to begin implementing flexible programs aimed at recapturing students who previously dropped out.

Joplin’s Flex program debuted last fall. Students attend two hours of classes in the afternoons, where they work one-on-one with instructors on computer programs aimed at helping them complete courses.

26 students

There are 26 students enrolled in Joplin’s version of the program, down from more than 40 last fall. Administrators said many of last fall’s participants have recovered enough credits to be able to transition back to normal school days.

Tyler Johnson, 18, has been enrolled in both the Flex and Missouri Option programs since he decided to come back to high school last fall after dropping out two years ago.

“I was nervous at first,” he said about returning to school. “I thought it was going to be twice as hard, but it’s been great. I’m happy to be here.”

Kierstyn Hutson, also 18, dropped out twice her junior year before coming back to school last August. Hutson said turning 18 was “a wake-up call” that she needed to come back for her diploma.

“There are a lot of benefits (to having a diploma),” she said. “It will get you a lot further and you can’t really get into college without one.”

Sachetta said roughly 250 of the 2,100 students at the high school are involved in one or more of the alternative learning programs.

Sachetta said the district spent about $225,000 last year on alternative learning programs.

“These are the best estimates we can offer since our at-risk budget is not broken out by program,” he said in an e-mail. “This number includes staff salaries and our best estimate regarding resources needed.”

Business impact

Joplin’s historically low graduation rate is something the district has tried to remedy by partnering with business and community leaders.

Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, said one of the factors potential employers are looking for is a highly skilled work force.

“We do hear from employers that they like the work force here, particularly in manufacturing,” O’Brian said. “They believe they work hard, want to do a good job and be trained. But as the needs of business have shifted over the years, there’s more emphasis on starting off with a good basic educational background rather than just a willingness to work and good hands.”

The chamber has partnered with the school district in numerous programs, including the TREK program to mentor third- and fourth-graders, and the Youth Outreach Work Partnership, in which at-risk sophomores, juniors and seniors at the high school participate in classes targeted at developing job skills and emphasizing the importance of a high school diploma.

“The underlying message in all of that is you really do need to finish high school at least to move forward and get these jobs,” O’Brian said. “Because there really aren’t many jobs for people who don’t finish high school.”

A parent’s take

For parents like Kittie Oberg, the district’s added emphasis on reducing dropouts and increasing the graduation rate has been a welcome change.

“It seemed like for a long time there wasn’t a lot of discussion about it, but now I think because of some of the state regulations it’s become more of an issue,” said Oberg, the president of South Middle School’s PTO and a mother of an 11th-grader, an eighth-grader and a fifth-grader in Joplin schools. “It is on their priority list, and it’s high on their priority list with good reason. But they’ve also put up three new schools in the last few years, and that says a lot about our district. It seems like it’s on the forefront.”

Oberg said she has participated in districtwide panels organized by the superintendent’s office aimed at promoting the “Graduation Matters” initiative.

“So far, from what I’ve seen, the district has done a great job of incorporating it into all three levels; high school, middle school and elementary school,” she said. “I’ve seen them talking about it, and making it an issue with the kids. We’re trying even at middle school level to say to them that this is really important and that graduation does matter.”

Graduation rate vs. dropout rate

Graduation rate is the number of graduates in a single class, in comparison with the number of students who dropped out over the class’s four years of high school.

Dropout rate refers to the number of dropouts in a single year for the school in grades 9-12 compared with its September enrollment. Transfers who do not go to another qualified education agency are considered a dropout.

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