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Diploma distress

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Eight Hawaii public high schools, among the state’s largest campuses, have graduation rates under 75 percent and 28 saw their graduation rates decline in 2009, according to the latest Department of Education statistics.

The disappointing figures come as the Department of Education is looking to make big improvements to its graduation rate. In its application for competitive federal Race to the Top grants, submitted last month, the DOE said it wants to increase the overall graduation rate from 80 to 85 percent by 2011.

It’s shooting for a 90 percent graduation rate by 2018.

Department of Education administrators and principals acknowledge that improving the graduation rate won’t be easy—especially as schools struggle to meet tougher state and federal demands and face worsening budget cuts. And, they say, it will involve reaching out to the most at-risk youth—and making sure they stay in school.

There is no departmentwide policy on what schools should do to try to improve their graduation rates, though there are best practices and schools are encouraged to try whatever works to keep kids coming to class.

The overall graduation rate for Hawaii public schools has stubbornly held at about 80 percent over the last decade, despite an emphasis in recent years on making the transition to high school a smoother one, on improving freshman success to deter dropouts, and on spotting problems early so struggling students don’t fall too far behind.

The dropout rate, at about 15 percent, also hasn’t budged much since 2000. The remaining 5 percent of students are those who wouldn’t be eligible for a high school diploma because they’re in special education or those who have been held back.

Daniel Hamada, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and student support, said improving the graduation rate will mean making sure schools are tracking potential problems early so students who are falling behind get the help they need—before they get so discouraged they drop out.

"Your target (graduation rate) should always be 100 percent," Hamada added. "You always got to shoot for the moon."

Campbell High School is one of the campuses seeing gains in graduation rates—against the odds.

About 42 percent of Campbell’s students get free or reduced-cost lunch (a poverty indicator). About 11 percent are in special education programs, and 9 percent have limited English proficiency. The school is one of the state’s largest, with 2,500 students.

Despite those figures, Campbell has seen its graduation rate grow to 84.4 percent from 81.6 percent in 2007, and its dropout rate decline to 12.6 percent.

Jamie M. Dela Cruz, acting principal at Campbell, said the school recently brought in a consultant to develop a "responsive intervention" program aimed at tracking student progress and offering extra help to those who are stumbling academically.

The school also has a strong college-going culture, boasts an International Baccalaureate diploma program and has created "curricular dean" positions to improve student achievement.

"We do target our students from the very beginning, in their freshman year," Dela Cruz said, adding that a key push in the school is making sure students are getting individualized help. "Most schools respond to the needs (of students) as they become apparent," he said. "We’re trying to respond to the needs before they happen"—and become a problem.

But even as some schools see improvements, others still struggle.

Farrington, Kaimuki, Nanakuli, Waianae and Castle high schools on Oahu and Keaau, Konawaena and Laupahoehoe high schools on the Big Island all had graduation rates under 75 percent in 2009.

And of the 42 public high schools in the islands (not counting four so small the DOE declined to release data on them because it would compromise student confidentiality), only 18 had graduation rates in 2009 higher than 85 percent—the DOE’s goal for 2011.

Moanalua High School had the highest, at 94 percent. The lowest was at Nanakuli, which had a 61.1 percent graduation rate.

The graduation rate at the state’s largest public high school—Farrington—was 65.2 percent, down from 74.2 percent in the 2007 school year.

Catherine Payne, Farrington High School principal, said the campus, with more than 2,600 students, is trying to improve its graduation rate by offering more targeted support for troubled students, especially in their freshman year.

But Payne said educators should also acknowledge there will always be a few kids in a ninth-grade class who, because of circumstances at home, run-ins with the law or bad choices, don’t make it to graduation day.

"If they can’t make it the regular way, schools must find other ways to help these kids," Payne said.

For Farrington and other high schools, that has meant offering students classes on campus for a competency-based diploma (received by taking a series of tests) or GED (General Educational Development).

The school had 42 students this year who were attending classes to get a competency-based diploma or GED. Of those, 14 got a diploma, 14 dropped out, one died in a traffic accident and the rest will continue next year.

"We recognize we can’t just abandon these young people," Payne said.

Statewide, 2,126 people of all ages got GEDs or competency-based diplomas in 2008, up from 2,075 in 2007, according to the DOE’s adult education program.

DOE officials say Hawaii’s graduation rate is higher than other states, though a reliable nationwide snapshot isn’t available because states calculate graduation rates differently.

The DOE graduation rate is arrived at by tracking ninth-graders in a cohort who remain in Hawaii public schools. Students who transfer out and those who enter public school after ninth grade are not included in the calculation.

Glenn Hirata, head of the DOE’s system evaluation and reporting section, said improving the graduation rate will mean providing more individualized help to at-risk students, some of whom are now opting for GEDs or alternative diploma programs.

And, he said, schools alone can’t be responsible for keeping kids in school.

"The entire society has to help, from families to the communities," Hirata said. "It will take more than just the teacher in the classroom."

Madhis Lagat, who dropped out of Nanakuli High School at 16, said he isn’t sure what would have kept him going to class.

He said he spent about a year doing not much of anything after dropping out, then enrolled in an alternative diploma program at Honolulu Community Action Program.

At McCoy Pavilion on Thursday, Lagat stood in the shade, nervously waiting for HCAP graduates to be ushered into an auditorium to accept their diplomas.

The 18-year-old said he plans to go to Honolulu Community College and study graphic arts and engineering. He’s happy to finally be providing a good example to his little brother, who is 17 and on track to graduate from Nanakuli.

"Every day I tell him do your best in school," Lagat said.

"Don’t be like me," Lagat says to his brother. "Don’t drop out."

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