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Schools with high dropout rates listed

Times Staff Writer

Just 25 of California’s 2,462 high schools account for more than a fifth of the state’s dropouts, with the problem heavily concentrated in charter and alternative schools, according to a study being released today by UC Santa Barbara.

However, a UCSB researcher said it wasn’t clear whether the schools were responsible for the problem or were simply the recipients of a disproportionate share of troubled students. And some educators and school advocates criticized the report -- either for relying on questionable data or for releasing potentially explosive statistics without context.

The report, issued as part of the California Dropout Research Project, used readily available state data to compile a list of every high school in the state ranked by the number of students listed as dropouts last year.

It showed that, of the 10 schools that reported the highest numbers of dropouts, only one was a traditional, comprehensive high school -- and the principal of that school said it ranked so high because of a data error. The rest were alternative schools, most of them charters and all specializing in education for high-risk students who couldn’t make it in conventional schools.

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Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at UC Santa Barbara and director of the dropout project, said Wednesday that the report wasn’t intended to answer questions about why the schools had so many dropouts but rather to give educators a snapshot they could use to map out future research.

“Is the school doing a bad job, or are the kids at risk anyway no matter what setting they’re in?” Rumberger asked in a conference call with reporters. Either way, he said, the value of the study is in telling the public, “This is where we should be concerned.”

Rumberger stressed that he wasn’t judging the individual schools at the top of the list, but added, “If that many kids are dropping out, it’s unlikely that you’re doing a good job.”

That comment angered Buzz Breedlove, director of John Muir Charter School, a Sacramento-based organization that operates programs for at-risk students at 43 locations throughout California. It was No. 1 on the UC Santa Barbara list, with 1,856 dropouts -- more students than are enrolled at the school.

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“To reconfigure numbers and come up with a dropout rate of 149%, which on its face is ludicrous, doesn’t suggest to me that very much thought went into these numbers,” said Breedlove, a former nonpartisan policy analyst for the California Legislature.

More than half a dozen of the schools on the list had dropout rates over 100% because enrollment is based on the number of students attending classes on a single day in October, but alternative schools typically have students arriving and leaving throughout the year.

According to Breedlove, the typical John Muir student is 19, has already dropped out of school two or three times and has completed only 75 of the required 210 credits for high school graduation. The school serves students who are enrolled in several organizations, including the California Conservation Corps.

“I would submit to you that one reason that our students drop out the way they do is that, absent our program, they wouldn’t be in school at all,” Breedlove said. “They would be terminal dropouts.”

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Much the same story came from the No. 2 school on the list, SIATech (School for Integrated Academics and Technologies), a San Diego-based alternative charter with seven campuses. SIATech works with the Job Corps to reclaim students who have already dropped out.

Spokeswoman Linda Leigh said a high dropout rate “is one of the pitfalls of trying to recover students who are really high-risk individuals.”

The only conventional, comprehensive school among the top 10 was Madera High North in the San Joaquin Valley, listed at No. 9 with 539 dropouts. But the school’s principal, Ron Pisk, said that figure was wrong, the result of a coding glitch that occurred when the Madera Unified School District recently switched data systems.

“It’s absolutely driving us crazy,” he said. “I’ve been losing sleep over this.” The true figure, he said, is about half what is listed in the report.

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Four of the schools in the top 10 are charters run by the same couple, John and Joan Hall. Their nonprofit charter, Options for Youth, has campuses ranked sixth, seventh and eighth, and their for-profit charter, Opportunities for Learning, was ranked third. The schools, which allow students to work independently, were the subject of a Times article in 2006 that found they had a poor record of keeping students until graduation.

A spokesman for the organization, Stevan Allen, issued a statement saying it was “not at all surprising that schools specializing in dropout recovery have a high number of dropouts -- just as obesity clinics have higher incidences of diabetes and heart disease among their patients. By definition, we are dealing with a population highly inclined to drop out.”

He estimated that the true dropout rate at the four schools ranges from 15% to 35%, rather than the 42% to 49% shown in the report.

Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Assn., also criticized the UC Santa Barbara report and said it could be interpreted as painting charter schools -- particularly those that specialize in educating troubled youth -- in a bad light.

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Charters are independently run but publicly funded campuses that are free from many state and local regulations in exchange for boosting achievement.

Daria Hall, assistant director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to improving education, complained in an e-mail that the report was based on “state-reported dropout figures that are wildly inaccurate.”

As an example, she said that John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles, ranked No. 16 in the report, has an official dropout rate of 9%, yet it has more than 1,900 students entering as freshmen but fewer than 500 enrolled as seniors.

“Unless almost 70% of the entering class transferred out, and no one transferred in, this school loses more than 9% of its students to dropout,” Hall wrote.

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Rumberger, the dropout project director, said the data were accurate but conceded that the state’s method of calculating dropouts leaves a great deal to be desired.

“I don’t think the data are flawed,” he said. “I think the data give an incomplete picture.”

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mitchell.landsberg@ latimes.com

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