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Numbers alone do little to explain why nearly 1,500 students dropped out of school last year, and state reports may not accurately reflect the actual status of those students.

According to the Delaware Department of Education, 1,442 students dropped out of school, 71 fewer than the year before, continuing a three-year decline to 3.7 percent of First State students dropping out of high school.

Some of those “dropouts,” may not have left school completely, administrators said.

If a student leaves the state or country and the receiving school does not make a request for the student’s records, it’s difficult for the original district to prove the student has relocated. So that is considered a dropout.

“We get a lot of students who move on us and we can’t even find them,” said Mervin Daugherty, superintendent of Red Clay Consolidated School District. “You still need to look at every student, but if we make an effort and we’re doing all we can, the schools should be penalized for that.”


Digging deeper into Delaware’s dropout rate

Red Clay Consolidated School Dist. superintendent Mervin Daugherty and Red Clay director of district and school services Burtie Watson

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Digging deeper into Delawares dropout rate

Sherry Gross, principal of Glasgow High School, said she withdrew 21 students from the school’s roll in two weeks, but believes many of those students will not be labeled as dropouts when reporting is complete. The chronic absences of those students, however, can negatively impact not only the attendance record of the building, but drag down performance development – at least on paper – through tests untaken.. Gross withdrew the students, who were all over 16, after they missed more than 10 consecutive days of school, home visits failed and registered letters to the students’ guardians went unanswered.

It’s unclear if those students or parents would go to such lengths to avoid school personnel, but in many cases students have moved out of state or out of the country where their Delaware student ID numbers would not be used. So those students fall off the grid.

“Say a student goes to a start-up charter in Baltimore, Maryland,” said Burtie Watson, director of district and school services for the Red Clay Consolidated School District. “If that school isn’t familiar with this process, we may never have a record that is where the student moved — even if they’re an honor student, or valedictorian.”

The Delaware Department of Education’s new computerized cohort management system is meant to streamline and standardize dropout records by using an online system that eliminates the need for school personnel to manually match up student ID numbers. However, Watson said the numbers compiled by the system and its rigid coding system can obfuscate what’s really happening with students.

“I understand the Department of Education is trying to get an accurate number,” Watson said, “ but it’s hard sometimes for us to verify where a kid is, though I’m not saying the spike is because all of the students went out of state or out of the country.”

Daugherty said reasons cited by himself and Watson are not meant to be excuses, but explanations as to why numbers can seem inflated. Over the last three years of reporting, for example, John C. Dickinson dropout numbers have fluctuated from 11 percent to 7 percent, back up to 12 percent.

Daugherty said Dickinson principal Byron Murphy “tried to hold on to students as long as he could,” in 2009-2010, meaning he wouldn’t allow them to withdraw nor did he withdraw chronically absent students from the rolls at the building level. When some students left in 2010-2011 anyway, it may have inflated that year’s dropout rates.

“You have to literally tell us you don’t want us before we stop offering help,” Daugherty said. Even after leaving school, staff try to meet with dropouts six weeks, sometimes six months after they leave school.

“I’m asking for the opportunity to think outside of the box,” Daugherty said. If students who followed alternative educational paths were not counted as dropouts, staff may be more comfortable recommending those alternatives.

He added that students who go to the James H. Groves Adult High School, enter Job Corps, or pursue a GED are also considered dropouts, although they aren’t terminating their education. Daugherty said he hopes legislators will consider alternative programs to keeping students in schools where they don’t want to be and future dropout reporting will reflect that.