Though she is school age, Shirley is wiping down tables in a fast food restaurant rather than holding down a desk at Wooster High. Her parents lost their home last year, and she is pitching in.
She’s hardly the only one. According to a data profile compiled by the Washoe County School District, in 2006 the African-American graduation rate nearly reached 50 percent. By last year it had dropped to a third.
What’s puzzling is that while black students graduating were declining from 47 to 34 percent, other identifiable groups were having very different experiences. During the same 2006-2008 period, Native, Asian and Latino Americans all experienced a dip—a small one—in 2007, but then recovered in 2008. Native Americans even saw a 10-point gain in graduations. Only African-Americans saw a steady decline.
School officials are hoping that this is a statistical irregularity because of the small numbers involved—fewer than a hundred black graduates each year compared to more than 400 Latinos each year. With numbers that low, even a few dropouts could throw the numbers out of whack. As a result, Washoe school officials are trying not to overreact to one year’s numbers, but they say they are also not waiting for next year’s numbers before looking for causes.
“Anytime you have a statistical drop for one year, you worry about it, and you really look at it and see what’s going on,” said assistant school superintendent Richard Borba. “Even with a small number, even if it’s an anomaly, we have to look in there and see why.”
This is happening at a time when the tools for dealing with a rise in dropouts are fewer than ever. Assemblymember Debbie Smith said the just-concluded session of the Nevada Legislature emptied a major “remediation” fund created in 2005 to deal with dropout issues in order to use the money elsewhere. At the University of Nevada, Reno, the Math Center and Writing Center, used to bring entering students up to speed, have both been closed by budget cuts. The availability of free tutoring at UNR has also declined, which one education leader says raises issues of class because there is no provision for the working poor.
One thing the Washoe school district is scrutinizing is instruction.
“We’re trying to emphasize our professional development, looking at different [forms of] instruction,” Borba said. “You know, different learning styles. For example, this year, with our middle school principals, our professional development will focus on literacy because we know literacy is a key. And then with our high school principals, our PD this year will focus on differentiating our instruction so they can work with their staff. We don’t have any more money, I just think we have to be more efficient—well, we actually have less money—we have to be more efficient and develop priorities. But the focus always has to be on improving what goes on in the classroom.”
Smith, who oversaw much of the education budget as a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, says federal stimulus dollars may be available for use on combating the dropout problem.
“The stimulus dollars have some targeted Title I money [which] doesn’t really affect high schools. But much of the dropout problem starts much younger than high school. So I think we got a little over $70 million in additional money from stimulus targeted right to [elementary and secondary] schools. So I think that will be good because the Title I schools also focus on parent involvement and, in my mind, if we could solve the parent involvement issue we could solve a lot of our other problems.”
Title I of the U.S. Elementary and Secondary Education Act deals with “improving the academic achievement” of the working poor. The dollar figure Smith cites would be distributed among all state school districts.
Borba echoed Smith’s comments about the dropout problem originating earlier than high school. He also said concern about dropouts transcends Washoe County or Nevada. Candidates for Washoe school superintendent, who hail from around the nation, brought up the issue in their candidate interviews, he said.
“We’re looking at doing things a little bit different,” he said. “We’re going to K-12 groups, so we’re digging deep into the data. You just can’t look at when they get into high school and see whether or not we’re being successful. We say graduation starts in kindergarten, and we really believe that. So we’re looking into the data both in elementary and middle school and identifying students and seeing what changes we can make. … We’re really focusing on our classroom practices as far as differentiating instruction and meeting needs of students.”
It is often said that blacks are the last hired and the first fired. African-American students continued dropping out in growing numbers as the recession gained force and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown took place, but other groups did not. Is it possible that the economic problems black families face are more deep seated than other groups? Some scholars say that lighter skinned minorities are accepted better than African-Americans.
“I think I and a lot of others would say there is nothing surprising about this,” said UNR sociologist Jim Richardson. “A black skin remains a difficult thing to overcome, and as inspiring as the Obama success is, it doesn’t mean that racism has disappeared in the society.”
Retired UNR professor Richard Siegel, who is associated with a Nevada education support group called the Education Alliance, said there is a class component at work.
“The students from four or five wealthier socioeconomic high schools that enroll at UNR is a very high proportion of the total [UNR enrollment] from Washoe schools,” he said. “We have two tracks for high school education, and the major part of the lower half of high schools are in deep trouble.”
Siegel is also concerned that the method of gathering and compiling figures in the county study conceals the extent of problems faced by educators. He would be happier if the compilers connected the dots a little better.
“I think the most deceptive kind of data reporting in this data profile involve higher ed data on growth in minorities. They never compare the minority group entry at UNR or TMCC with the size of the cohort leaving the high schools. We get that kind of data in terms of overall student numbers but not particular minorities. So if Hispanics increase by 20 percent as grads of Washoe high schools, and UNR gets an increase of 5 percent, they claim this as a big increase. It is not.”
At the same time, Siegel says Washoe County is a good place to have these problems.
“Washoe school grads manage to ‘persist’ at UNR better than other Nevada high school grads. And there has been great progress in UNR graduation rates for WCSD high school grads.”