Arizona's High School Dropout Rate Highest In Nation

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High school students in Arizona are more likely to drop out than virtually anywhere else in the country, a new survey released last week suggests. And state figures may provide a partial explanation: Arizona also falls about $1,500 behind the rest of the nation in average per-student spending.

Throw in a couple of hefty proposed education budget cuts now on the state legislature's table, and you have a pretty bleak picture but not one that necessarily offers a fair reflection of local high school students, the quality of education they receive, or the Rim country's own "slightly better" dropout statistics.

That, at least, is the view shared by Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels and Payson High School Principal Phil Gille, who also believe that the dropout statistics fail to take into account many of the factors which make Arizona unique.

"For one thing, we live in a very transient state," Weissenfels said. "We have many children come and go. You get down to Bisbee, and sometimes it's as much as 40 to 50 percent of the faces that change every year. In such a transient social norm, you're going to find more kids who are not going to stay in school."

Gille agrees, and adds a few personal insights to the diagnosis.

"The number of students that come and go at Payson High School within two years is very high 30 percent, as I remember," the principal said. "But one thing we noticed when we were studying this two years ago was that kids who've lived their whole life in the Payson area don't drop out; that rate is just about nonexistent, and it's statewide.

"The same thing was true when I was teaching in the Valley, and it's something I did not see in Illinois, Wisconsin, Wyoming and other areas where I've taught. So our high transient rate is a big factor, I think."

Lowering Arizona

If so, it's been a factor for quite some time. Arizona has always been low on the list of states that successfully keep their kids in school and now that it's slipped to the very bottom, it can't get any lower.

The dropout study, conducted over 13 years by the National Center for Educational Statistics, surveyed state education departments and researched U.S. census data to conclude that, from October 1998 to October 2000, 26.5percent of Arizonans 18 to 24 years old failed to complete high school or earn an equivalent credential, up 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

The state's current ranking puts it 4 percentage points behind Nevada, 6 points behind Texas, and a whopping 20 points behind the leaders of the list, Maine and North Dakota, where only 6 percent of young adults fail to earn high school diplomas. The national failure average is 14.3percent.

Another reason Arizona fared so badly thereby reflecting an unfair degree of guilt-by-association on Payson is that the problems of Valley school districts are statistically spread out over all of the state's school districts.

"The real high dropout rates are in the Phoenix area, where they've got tough gangs, drug problems, overcrowded classrooms and real inner-city problems," Gille said. "When kids come from that kind of background, it's hard to overcome."

It's quite a different story in Payson, the PHS leader observed, partly because the community is so well populated with "parents who keep track of what their children are doing in school, and who help them when they need help.

"Also, for a small school we have a lot of extracurricular activities," Gille said. "We have a good fine arts program, a good vocational program, a good athletic program, lots of places for students to be successful. Percentage-wise, students just don't get those kinds of opportunities in schools of 5 or 6,000."

One more secret of Payson High School's relative success, he continued, is that "a lot of our students don't necessarily drop out; they transfer to Payson Center for Success. We are fortunate in this area to have two high schools that deliver a good education in two different modes."

Dropout prevention

There is one state-supplied weapon in the battle against high-school dropouts but so far it's had little or no impact on local statistics.

The Arizona Department of Education offers more than $6.5 million in grant money for its school districts to develop and maintain dropout prevention programs. The Deer Valley Unified School District in northwest Phoenix is slated to spend $800,000 in 2001, while Chandler Unified School District is expected to burn up about $108,000.

Meantime, the PUSD will spend "relatively nothing," according to Weissenfels.

"We do a little (dropout prevention) through counseling and our English-as-a-second-language program," the superintendent said, "and we have many other special programs where we try to identify the children that would be at risk of leaving school, and try to come up with something that will help to prevent that.

"As far as actual dropout-prevention funds, however, there's a fancy formula for getting that type of money of which we get relatively nothing," Weissenfels said.

Money crunch

If the Arizona State Legislature gets its way, "relatively nothing" will become a familiar financial sight across Arizona's education landscape affecting students and teachers.

In the first of two currently proposed education budget cuts designed to help solve a $1.6billion budget crisis, the lawmakers hope to siphon $150 million that's been earmarked for new school construction, computers and software, and cut an additional $35million worth of "career ladder" programs, which allow teachers in 28 Arizona school districts to improve their skills in exchange for improving their paychecks.

While Weissenfels and Gille are dismayed by both those possibilities, it's the "career ladder" threat that concerns them most.

"That would be a major setback for our district," Weissenfels said. "That money is approximately a half-million dollars that ... can pay as much as $6,000 extra to a teacher for working on goals and objectives aimed at student achievement ... If that money were to be lost, those things would stop."

Gille's view is even more succinct. "The 'career ladder' program is one of the few accountable systems in education," he said, "and probably one of the reasons we're doing so well in this school district."

Nearly as devastating, however, would be the chokehold lawmakers could put on school construction.

"If that money goes away, we're never going to get it back again," Weissenfels said. "Where's it going to come from? We have almost $6 million worth of projects about to kick off right here: a new building, roofing work, addressing the mold and air-conditioning issues at PES ... Without that money, those projects will not get done."

There is, however, one portion of the state's budget-slashing plan the cutbacks on computer and software spending that doesn't worry Weissenfels in the least.

"We don't have that stuff now," Weissenfels said with a weary laugh. "Yes, it would be nice for Arizona schools as a whole to move into the 21st century. But will we die without those things? No."

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