Kevin Cooper took several wrong turns on the road to a high school diploma. He was kicked out of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington because he and his friends preferred hanging out to going to class, he said. He had more academic problems at his next D.C. public high school and wound up short of the credits he needed to graduate last year.
Finally, after spending a year in an evening program offered at three high school campuses in the city, Cooper received his diploma this month. He said he's grateful he got another chance.
"When people see that you graduated from high school, they know you have potential -- you did your work," said Cooper, 19, who is considering going to trade school to study electronics.
Cooper is the kind of student that D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is targeting with a plan to greatly expand the safety net for youths at risk of not finishing high school. Starting in fall 2006, the school system plans to offer the option of a fifth year at its high schools -- with smaller classes, tutoring and other support services -- for students who need more time to complete their requirements.
Janey's goal is to provide flexibility to teenagers who might be juggling school with job and parenting responsibilities -- and to retain students who, after falling behind, might otherwise drop out well before 12th grade. He also plans to establish a three-year track for students who want to graduate early.
School officials said those moves are part of an effort to reinvent high schools. Other measures, they said, might include staggering class schedules so some students can start and end their school day later; expanding apprenticeship programs in various trades; and allowing students to enroll in community college while in high school.
"This flies in the face of the traditional way we've run public schools," said William Caritj, the District's associate superintendent for educational accountability and assessment. "We're living in a world where young adults are faced with challenges. Public education needs to get with it to serve the needs of students."
School officials also acknowledge that their graduation, dropout and attendance statistics are unreliable and that they need to generate more accurate numbers so they can estimate how many youths would benefit from a five-year program.
One D.C. school system report showed that though 4,207 students enrolled as ninth-graders in 2000, only 2,740 graduated four years later. But the study did not account for students transferring into or out of the D.C. system.
The school system's official dropout rate is 6.9 percent. But that is based on the number of students in grades seven through 12 who dropped out during a school year. Most experts said they believe it is far better to calculate the dropout rate by following a ninth-grade class for four years and determining how many from that group quit school.
Five-year high school programs have been introduced in only a few school systems across the country, including Rochester, N.Y. -- where Janey previously served as schools chief -- and Chicago.
About 8 percent of Rochester students opt for the five-year plan, which was established in 2002. The school system's graduation rate has remained steady since then, said Tom Petronio, a spokesman for Rochester schools.
In Chicago, students who failed more than one grade in elementary or middle school are placed in the program, though it is also open to those with better academic records. Chicago officials, who started their program five years ago, said the school system's dropout rate has decreased since then, but they have not determined what role the extension of high school might have played.
D.C. school administrators said that under their plan, students could select the five-year option as soon as they begin ninth grade and also would be allowed to enter the program later. One factor that might prompt students to take the extra year is Janey's plan to increase the number of high school credits required for graduation from 23.5 to 27.5.
To address the lack of reliable data on graduation and attendance, school officials have purchased a new computer system and launched long-term studies, an effort driven in part by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires school systems to post such figures.
"With the constant turnover in leadership, the accountability, housekeeping and due diligence one would expect when tracking data like this were not put into place," said Meria J. Carstarphen, the system's chief accountability officer. "This new system will allow us to better track students so we'll have a better idea of which students are transferring to other schools and which ones are dropping out."