Fewer drop out of high school in Sacramento area

High school dropout rates fell significantly last year across the Sacramento region, according to figures released Monday by the California Department of Education.

About 9.5 percent of the students in the class of 2013 in the Sacramento region dropped out before finishing high school, compared with 11.1 percent the previous year. In 2009-10, the figure was nearly double the 2013 rate, at 18.2 percent.

The region’s progress followed a statewide trend, as California saw its graduation rate climb above 80 percent for the first time in state history, according to the California Department of Education.

Local educators said Monday their success in battling the dropout rate was largely due to new programs that make learning more relevant. Most local districts have expanded career academies at high schools to appeal to students.

“Career academies and pathways are a strong magnet to attracting kids and keeping them in school,” said Christina Penna, an associate superintendent for secondary education at Elk Grove Unified.

The Criminal Justice Academy at Grant High School in Twin Rivers Unified serves 200 students – half low-income or at risk, according to teacher Richard Harris. Despite those odds, the program graduates 40-50 students annually and loses only one or two each year.

A board on the wall lists the names of all the program’s seniors and the colleges to which they have been accepted. The program’s secret: strict guidelines and a policy that staff members don’t give up on students as long as they are trying.

That support doesn’t end with graduation. “We make sure they have something going when they leave,” Harris said. “We don’t let them swing in the wind. They have to have a purpose, and we push them all the time.”

It was the fourth year in a row statewide graduation numbers improved.

“We are continuing toward our goal of graduating 100 percent of our students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement released Monday.

While disadvantaged groups showed improvement, some education advocates observed that they remained below the 80 percent benchmark.

The “incremental increases are not keeping pace with the overall population of our students,” particularly minority students, said Valerie Cuevas, incoming interim executive director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit. “An 80 percent graduation rate would be great if it was 80 percent for all students across the state. We have to stay invested and committed. We need these small victories, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. There is still a lot of work to do.”

The region’s dropout rate of 9.5 percent compared favorably with the statewide rate of 11.6 percent. Graduation and dropout rates do not add up to 100 percent because a small segment of students who did not graduate remained in school, passed a high-school equivalency test or were non-diploma special education students. Both rates measure the outcomes of students who began high school in 2009-10, according to the Education Department.

Yolo, Placer and Sacramento counties saw a decline in dropouts from 2012 to 2013, while El Dorado County’s dropout rate rose to from 5.5 percent to 6.3 percent.

Two of the largest local school districts saw declines in their dropout rate. Sacramento City Unified saw its dropout rate fall from 11.5 percent in 2012 to 5.9 percent in 2013. Elk Grove’s dropout rate fell from 6.7 percent to 5.4 percent over the same period.

“A strong web of intervention and support for students,” as well as a focus on using data to improve graduation rates, have helped to increase Elk Grove Unified’s success, Penna said. School counselors are on the front lines, tracking individual progress from the time each student first takes the high school exit exam and ensuring they meet graduation requirements, she said.

In Sacramento City Unified, Rosemont, Hiram Johnson and Burbank high schools saw dropout rates fall around 50 percent last year. West Campus reported a dropout rate of 0, meaning everyone in the class of 2013 graduated.

Twin Rivers Unified saw a 3 percentage point decline in its dropout rate, but at 16.4 percent remained well above the state and local average. The district has added academies and career technical programs, while it plans to add art classes, in an effort to improve its graduation rates.

“We are in no way satisfied with those numbers,” said Craig Murray, executive director of secondary education at Twin Rivers. “We want to do more things to create meaningful experiences for students.”

San Juan Unified was the only large, local district that did not post a decline. Its dropout rate went from 10.5 percent in 2012 to 10.6 percent in 2013. District spokesman Trent Allen said the district is trying to reduce that number by offering students more options such as alternative schools and online programs.

The district’s San Juan High and Encina High had dropout rates of roughly 1 in 4 students. The numbers are misleading, Allen said, because both high schools embed alternative schools within their programs. He said that half of each high school’s dropout population came from these programs.

The biggest proportional declines in the dropout rates were at Galt High, which went from 11.7 percent to 1.7 percent; Elk Grove High, which went from 3 percent to 1 percent; and Natomas High, which decreased from 14.1 percent to 5.7 percent.

Independent study high schools continued to see the highest dropout rates. Keema High in Twin Rivers and Las Flores High in Elk Grove both had dropout rates of roughly 1 in 3 students. Among charter schools, the highest dropout rates were at Community Collaborative Charter at 48.1 percent and Options for Youth-San Juan at 32 percent.