This was written by George Wood, superintendent and secondary school principal at the Federal Hocking Local School District in Stewart, Ohio. He is also the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy and chair of the board for the Coalition of Essential Schools.
By George Wood
“Dr. Wood, I need your help on this one.” My assistant is one of the most competent people I know, so when she asks for help I figure it is pretty important.
“While you were out yesterday a young woman came in to enroll. She is 18, has missed almost 14 days of school this year, and still has several graduation tests to pass. She says she is living with a boyfriend in our district…so?”
If you don’t deal with the demands put on schools by No Child Left Behind and state accountability models, you might not know what that question really meant. Let me make it simple for you: Do we take this girl — who we do not have to take, who has aged out of public schooling, who is not an “official” district resident — and risk damaging our school report card?
It works this way. Clearly this young woman is at risk of dropping out. She is several credits short of graduating this year even if she passes all the classes she is taking. She has an attendance problem, does not have a stable family getting her to school every day, and, according to her prior school, has failed an early childhood course because she refused to get the required physical that would have cleared her to work with children. Additionally, she has failed repeatedly several of the state-mandated tests required for graduation.
If we enroll her and she drops out, or does not graduate because of credits or tests, our school will take the blame for her as a dropout even though she will only be with us for six months. She will be reflected in our graduation rate, and given that we are a small school — this year’s graduating class is 87 students — if she drops out she will lower our rate by 1.1%. The graduation rate is used by the state to rate our school and determine whether we need state intervention, need to spend money on transferring students, or resort to some other brilliant turnaround strategy like firing staff.
By allowing her to enroll, even though we do not have to, we put the entire school at risk.
I should not be thinking this way.
Instead, I should see this young woman as part of our mission, as someone we can help, as someone worthy of yet another chance. It should not matter whether or not we predict she can graduate. We should work to help her graduate.
And we will. We enrolled her the very next day. (My assistant knew we would; I think she was just testing me.)
But here’s the deal. Rather than punishing us for taking a chance, how about using an accountability system that gives us credit for putting ourselves on the line? We believe that in just six months we can get her to finish school, something neither her parents (who are nowhere in the picture) nor the other school she is leaving believes.
We need a system that says if you take at-risk kids, if you open your doors to them — regardless of the conditions they are fleeing or have created — we will give you credit for that. In fact, we might even give you the extra funding you need to track these kids, offer them after-school help, and make sure they have the supports they need just to get in the door every day.
I know that is really too much to hope for.
But I am asking anyway.
And if the answer is ‘no,’ how about simply adjusting the way graduation rates are computed so it makes it easier for us to say ‘yes’ to kids like this?
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