Local school district leaders have responded to a report from Mississippi State Auditor Shad White that accused state education officials of manipulating the graduation rate and neglecting certain dropout prevention policies.
The auditor said the state Education Department met graduation goals – which were set at an 85 percent graduation rate by the 2018-2019 school year – by changing how the rate was calculated. The report said the department changed the reporting on graduation and dropout rates by calculating them without including repeat students.
Area superintendents provided individual graduation rates and their specific plans to ensure students complete all 12 years of school.
At Petal High School, the graduation rate is 88.9 percent, and officials expect that number to increase to approximately 91 percent next year. Andy Schoggin, assistant superintendent of the Petal School District, said the rate has incrementally increased every year, which is sustainable for the district to continue.
“I think when we got here, we were in the mid-80s, and now we’re up to about 5 percent on that, so we’re feeling really good about where we are with that,” he said. “But there’s still some work to do.”
The district implements a couple of measures to keep dropout rates low, including focusing on early childhood education. Schoggin said that Petal’s Excel By 5 community – the first in the state to earn that designation – coupled with an early learning collaborative sets a solid foundation for the students.
“As they progress through the elementary school, those foundational math and reading skills really set them up for success in later life,” he said. “And I think that’s one thing that helps with early childhood education and the focus on that.”
The district also keeps an eye on students who may have certain risk factors, including those with attendance issues.
“We really try to engage those kids individually, because it requires more of an individualized approach to make sure that they’re going to be successful,” Schoggin said. “It’s not just a blanket approach; it really becomes targeted with kids once we have that solid elementary foundation.
“Then it becomes what we’re doing to make sure these kids are engaged, and then we have this school and community and family collaboration that really works in tandem. Then we get into our secondary, and we really look into other opportunities to be involved – we believe that’s a big part of our success in the secondary, is kids involved, and we have a really high participation rate in clubs and extracurricular activities.”
The Forrest County School District featured an 86 percent graduation rate last year at North Forrest High School, and officials project that number will be more than 90 percent this year.
The district features a dropout coach who monitors students with excessive absences, and officials also monitor students who are at risk, including those who may be a year behind or have potential failing grades. Those students are tracked throughout their entire school career, but particularly once they get to the seventh grade, which tends to be when some students begin falling behind.
“As far as having guidance on graduation rates and dropout prevention guidance, I’ve felt comfortable with what MDE has provided,” district superintendent Brian Freeman said. “We hold ourselves accountable, because the graduation rate is such a big factor in the accountability model.
“Number one, it’s the best thing to do, is to get kids to graduate. That’s the first thing; forget all these other numbers. But the second part of that is, it’s weighted so heavily toward that graduation number – in the high school model, 200 points goes into that graduation rate, so you should be making a focus on that. If you’re not monitoring that graduation rate, then you’ve got dropout problems.”
In the last accountability model, Forrest County Agricultural High School boasted a graduation rate of 87.3 percent.
To keep dropout rates at a minimum, superintendent Donna Boone meets with the administrative team once a month to discuss students are considered at risk – those who are on the failure list each month and those who have a large number of absences.
Principal Will Wheat meets monthly with the school’s teachers to discuss similar points, such as students who show patterns of excessive absences.
“Usually with those patterns, we can identify some strengths to build on, of ways to motivate the child to come to school more,” Wheat said. “We also, with at-risk students, meet face-to-face with their parents.
“So those students through that data that we identify who are on a pattern of possibly not completing high school, or even in the high absentee rate, we’ll call their parent in and meet face-to-face. We’ve got two academic guidance counselors on site, and we have two behavioral counselors on site. Between those four ladies, we’re able to meet with parents a lot and meet one-on-one with the students about staying in school, finishing school and coming to school every day.”
Throughout the Lamar County School District, graduation rate averages were 93.7 percent in 2015-16, 94.7 percent in 2016-17, 92.4 percent in 2017-18 and 92.1 percent in 2018-19. District officials said all school districts are required by the state to create and submit a plan to reduce and prevent dropout prevention.
“Our schools strive to work with students in any way possible before they make the decision to drop out,” superintendent Tess Smith said. “My only issue with how graduation rates are figured is that even if we help a student get a GED or into a program where they obtain a GED, that student still counts as a dropout.”
Officials from the Hattiesburg Public School District did not reply for comment.
Freeman said he would be interested to see where White came up with his numbers for the audit.
“I can tell you when MDE transitioned to the federal model – which I understand they didn’t have a choice – we used to could do a four-year cohort or a five-year cohort, which at times helped us the old way,” Freeman said. “But when we went to the federal model, it was a flat-up four-year cohort regardless, and that’s how we feel like it hurts us.
“So without digging into and knowing exactly what parameters he used to determine this, it’s really hard for me to say that he’s right or wrong, other than I know there’s more to it than a simple ‘this is this, and that is that.’ We’ve never been crazy about the way the cohorts are done with the federal model, because say if I have a child in the ninth or 10th grade, and he leaves and goes to another school as a junior and in his junior year he drops out, I wasn’t in charge of trying to keep him in school but yet his dropout comes back to my district.”