The state of Virginia last week released a comprehensive report detailing the dropout and completion rates at each of its 313 non-alternative high schools, and Alexandria City Public Schools ended up below the state average in both on-time graduation and dropout rates.
Of Virginia high school students expected to graduate in 2008, 82.1 percent earned a diploma on time, while 8.7 percent dropped out of school before graduation, nearly 3.9 percent received a GED and 2.6 percent are still enrolled, according to the report.
In Alexandria, by contrast, only 76.4 percent of those students expected to graduate in the past school year did so on-time, almost 6 percent less than the state average, according to the report. Of that initial class of 712 students, 79 (11.1 percent) dropped out and the status of another 27 students remains unconfirmed.
This places T.C. Williams among the 134 high schools with a dropout rate exceeding the statewide average, according to the department of education.
Theres no blame and no excuses, it is what it is, ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman said. What it means for us here in Alexandria is that this cannot stand. We cannot accept old messages, old belief systems. Acceptance of mediocrity is not part of our vocabulary any longer.
For those working with the citys minority youth population, a group that actually makes up the majority of T.C. Williams and is marked by some of ACPSs lowest on-time graduation rates, the statistics found in the states report are nothing new.
Its not surprising at all. We know the students are not graduating, we know the students are dropping out, said Evelin Urrutia, lead organizer of Alexandria United Teens, the youth branch of Tenants and Workers United.
Were very excited that we have a superintendent who recognizes that Alexandria has a problem and that we have to work together. The schools have to work with the community to fix that, Urrutia said.
The state calculates the On-Time Graduation Rate by dividing the number of students receiving a diploma in 2008 by the total number of students who originally entered ninth grade in the 2004-2005 school year. Adjustments were made for certain students who, under state and federal law, could take longer than four years to graduate, according to the Department of Education.
The states report also broke down the numbers by different student demographics in an effort to enhance public understanding and accountability, according to state officials.
Within the City of Alexandria, and on average throughout the state, certain demographics were markedly and consistently lower than others, a trend most noticeable among Hispanic students, students with limited English proficiency, homeless students and disadvantaged students, according to the report.
Im fascinated by that for lots of reasons, Sherman said. I dont think that weve adapted well. We provide good programs but theyre not sufficient and theyre not always answering the tremendous need that is presented to us.
Statewide, 55 percent of dropouts left school prior to 11th grade and 26.9 percent left during ninth grade, the Department of Education said. The number of dropouts during the senior year was the lowest of any grade at 20.7 percent.
In most cases, dropouts posted consistently poor attendance records, attending school less than 80 percent of the time in their last year of school.
Among homeless students, just over 60 percent graduated on time, including 54.5 percent in Alexandria, according to the report.
The report showed that only 57.5 percent of Hispanic students in Alexandria graduated on time while an additional 24.8 percent dropped out the single highest rate among the different subgroups in the city compared to state averages of 71.5 percent and 19.9 percent, respectively.
It just breaks my heart to think that 25 percent of our Hispanic population is dropping out, Sherman said. That just breaks my heart as an educator.
Discussion within the school community about the importance of early childhood education has been a hot topic of sorts in the last few weeks with the impending school board elections and the adoption of the schools new strategic plan. Sherman said that Alexandrias school population, characterized by high levels of poverty and high levels of mobility, is not and should not be viewed as a hurdle getting in the way of success.
Weve been doing it for too long in education, assuming that everyone was white and middle class, and therefore you need to do things the same, Sherman said. Thats just not how it works. Just because you might come to us with a different set of characteristics doesnt mean you cant achieve.
Among the most critical influences on getting kids to achieve and remain in school is keeping them engaged and motivated, as well as providing the educational support they need.
The biggest factor is that there is nobody there who really motivates them when they get to school, Urrutia said. You can come out of a really poor community but if you have someone who makes a difference in your life and school, thats what really makes the difference.
The hard reality of the situation, the successes and failures in the student-teacher relationships, is what causes frustration within the teaching ranks
Its a real shot in the gut to see that kind of number, that kind of result, Sherman said. There are no quick answers, no easy fixes. The frustration that I hear is that, Were working really hard and were trying to do our best and still with all of that were not getting the best results for our kids.
In spite of the schools persistent achievement gap and the number of students dropping out of school or failing to graduate on time, the positive stories coming out of ACPS, when combined with the openness and vigor that Sherman has brought to tackling the issue, appear to be grounds for optimism.
If the student feels attached to the school, definitely that student would not drop out, Urrutia said, because I know many students who are in [English as a Second Language] classes who just happen to have someone who really values their time in school and they feel proud of that and want to go to school.