It's not easy to ditch class at Payson High School. In fact, it's a lot of extra work.
That, school officials say, is their secret to keeping students in class and lowering the school's dropout rate to 8 percent -- more than 30 percent lower than the state average.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan announced this week that the average high school dropout rate in the state dipped slightly from 12.1 percent four years ago to 11.5 percent last year. That minor reduction -- Arizona's first in four years -- is dwarfed by the changes in Payson High's dropout rate, which fell from 13 percent in 1994-95 to 8 percent last year.
The state's dropout rate spiked to 12.8 percent during the 1996-97 school year, while it fell to 10 percent that same year in Payson.
"While we are seeing a decrease, we are losing far too many of our young people," Keegan said in a Jan. 19 press release that reported that more than 27,000 students in the state dropped out last school year. "We need to find out why."
Keegan plans to authorize a study to find out why Arizona students leave school and how schools such as Payson High keep students in class.
The philosophy behind Payson's program is simple, PHS Vice Principal Dave Bradley said. Students who go to class are less likely to drop out than students who miss class and fall behind in their course work.
Four years ago, school officials adopted a tough attendance policy that made ditching a hassle, he said, and almost immediately the school's dropout rate started to fall.
Students who ditch once at Payson High have to make up missed class time by attending Monday Night School -- 90 minutes of class work after school in room six. A second offense can mean community service work or in-school suspension.
Additional offenses carry penalties ranging from off-school suspension to referrals to Teen Tribunal Court or the juvenile probation department. Each time a class is missed, the student's parents are notified.
Students who rack up 10 unexcused absences can lose class credit or face long-term suspension.
"The byproduct of getting students in class is that we have more students passing, more students graduating and more students going on to college," Bradley said.