JOPLIN, Mo. — Jade Roeder, a Joplin High School senior, believes the problems that prompt students to drop out of high school are more complex than many people realize.
The 18-year-old said Friday that she has faced many challenges that undermine success in school, including homelessness, living without running water, displacement because of the May 22, 2011, tornado and bullying in school.
Roeder is now living in her own apartment with help from an Ozark Center assistance program.
She is one of several Joplin High School students featured in an upcoming documentary titled “Undroppable,” which wants to bring attention to the country’s dropout rate and the struggles students face.
“The people who are so concerned about those (dropout) numbers need to realize that it’s not just kids that are dumb or idiotic,” Roeder said. “We’re not just statistics like everyone thinks we are ... They don’t know the story behind it. That’s the problem with this town; well, in America, too. Nobody wants to know the back story behind it; they’re just quick to jump to conclusions.”
“The only thing that really gets me through day to day is thinking about my diploma and walking across that stage and knowing that I’m going to make my dad proud,” she said. “That’s all I really care about.”
Roeder hopes to one day study criminology, become a crime scene investigator and eventually go to work for the FBI.
Roeder is not alone in her fight. Each year, students in schools across the country drop out, and for many different reasons.
Before the tornado, Joplin school district and community leaders had made lowering the dropout rate their primary challenge, and they were having success. The rate had been below the state average for many years, and the district had been developing and implementing programs aimed at keeping students in school.
But data released last week by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education indicate that struggle hasn’t abated. Local school officials believe the recent slip is partially a result of last year’s tornado as well the more traditional factors that lead to dropping out.
Joplin’s graduation rate, which been in the mid-70 percent range for years, climbed to 81.6 percent in 2010, but slipped in 2011 to 79.1 percent. It fell again for 2012, to 76.7 percent.
In 2011, the state graduation rate was 81.14 percent. For 2012, it was 85.4 percent.
“There’s no doubt what we suffered last year with the tornado had to have an impact on kids,” Joplin High School Principal Kerry Sachetta said last week.
He also noted that some of the other struggles that lead students to drop out begin early.
“There’s a lot of kids who start getting disenfranchised with school in early grades or when they first start high school. They slowly get to the point where they decide to drop out,” he said.
Sachetta said he has high hopes that many students who dropped out but returned again as seniors this fall will complete school by December, and that will raise Joplin’s rate.
“I wish it was better compared to the previous years and knowing we went through the tornado and a lot of kids with more difficult situations than ever in one year. It’s not that bad compared to the year before, but there’s no question we want better and we’re going to try to improve that,” he said.
Administrators and counselors worked over the summer to track down students who had dropped out and to encourage them to commit to coming back to school. Sachetta said the district will work with those students to find the right program for them, be it a regular high school diploma track, or alternatives such as the Missouri Options Diploma or a FLEX diploma.
For 2012, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Webb City had a graduation rate of 92 percent.
“I think it’s the highest ever since we began recording it ... We’re dancing in the streets,” said Superintendent Anthony Rossetti.
He credits the increase to a student success team the district implemented about four years ago, as well as building relationships with individual students in the district to encourage them to achieve.
“Some of these kids come from tough backgrounds, some things I’ve never experienced, and I’m amazed at what some kids have been able to overcome,” Rossetti said. “It’s a testament to our staff and our kids. It’s a team effort to get those kids across that stage.”
In Carthage, Deborah Swarens, assistant superintendent for instruction, said the district is pleased with the increase in graduation rate. This year, it was 86.7 percent, a steady rise from 81.4 percent in 2010.
“We have had extreme growth in that area since 2007-2008, when we were at the floor according to the state’s measuring system. We have really had a K-12 push to work on that issue districtwide, and it is paying off.”
Swarens said that the district has implemented a freshman orientation program, intervention program and a graduation coach for English Language Learners to help boost the graduation rate.
Carl Junction has also seen steady increases over the past three years. This year, the graduation rate was 89.8 percent compared with 84.8 percent in 2010. Kathy Tackett, assistant superintendent, said the district has worked hard to improve its rate through a GED option and other programs for at-risk students.
“There are lots of options for students to come back and finish their high school diplomas,” she said.
Tackett said the district has started talking to kids about college at younger grades.
“The focus is not if you go to college, but when,” Tackett said.
In Neosho, district officials have seen the graduation rate slip, from 85.5 percent in 2010 to 81.2 percent this year.
Glenda Condict, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, blamed this year’s lower graduation rate on the number of synthetic drugs available to high school students.
Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland and others in the county have said reducing the availability of synthetic drugs has become a top priority.