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Little Improvement in Dropout Rates From California Schools

Meredith May, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, June 9, 2000

California's high school dropout rate improved only slightly in the past year, according to state figures released yesterday, with Oakland ranking the worst in the Bay Area.

While cautioning that dropout rates are educated guesses at best, the state Department of Education calculated that 11.1 percent of California high schoolers quit in the four-year period ending last June.

That's a minuscule improvement over the 11.7 percent dropout rate the previous year.

Oakland more than doubles the state rate, with 24.1 percent of students not finishing high school. That's the seventh highest dropout rate in California, after a handful of rural districts and the Grant Joint Union High school district in Sacramento.

``We must do more in this state to ensure that our students graduate from high school,'' said state Superintendent Delaine Eastin. ``More than ever before, our young people need to understand that if they do not have a diploma, their prospects for the future are greatly diminished.''

Calculating dropout rates is an inexact science because school districts have a difficult time tracking students who leave, especially those who don't come back from summer vacation. Students who disappear might have switched public schools, left the state, transferred to a private school, repeated a grade or died. Some districts have the resources to follow the trails, but others don't.

California Parents for Educational Choice, a San Francisco-based group that advocates the use of public funds for private schools, says the state dropout rate is probably higher than reported, about 34.5 percent. Alan Bonsteel, president of the group, gives Oakland schools a 58 percent dropout rate.

Bonsteel counts the number of freshmen and compares that to the graduating class four years later and factors in enrollment growth or decline. But state education leaders say his analysis is an attrition rate and does not show how many students drop out.

The state admits its math isn't perfect, either. It comes up with a four-year dropout rate by collecting data for a single grade in a single year and then estimating the percent of students who would drop out in a four-year period.

``To create a true four-year dropout rate we would need to collect individual student data and be able to track such data over time,'' said Donna Rothenbaum, a demographer for the California Department of Education.

The state is working on a computerized system, called California School Information Services, to track all 5.8 million students from kindergarten through their final year -- but that is still at least five years from completion.

Gov. Gray Davis' new ranking system for school districts requires graduation and dropout rates, but Eastin has told the Legislature not to use current data until the new computer system is ready.

Bay Area dropout rates are mixed.

Districts showing modest improvement include San Francisco at 12.8 percent, Pittsburg at 9.2 percent and San Jose at 3.7 percent. Districts that fared worse included Newark at 13.7 percent and West Contra Costa at 15.8 percent.

In Oakland, new Superintendent Dennis Chaconas is working to pull his district out of the dropout top 10. He has selected a reading program for the elementary grades and has put more resources into a summer school program.

``A quarter of our kids dropping out is not acceptable, obviously,'' Chaconas said. ``Part of the renaissance of the Oakland schools will be a stronger educational program to prepare youngsters to graduate, and more work with community agencies and the city to help those students who have other needs that are prohibiting them from academic success.''