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Utah the only state in U.S. without a 'dropout factory'

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30 2007 12:33 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — A new analysis indicates Utah is the only state in the country that does not have a "dropout factory" — a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year.

Nationwide, that description fits more than one in 10 high schools across America.

"If you're born in a neighborhood or town where the only high school is one where graduation is not the norm, how is this living in the land of equal opportunity?" asks Bob Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins researcher who coined the term "dropout factory."

There are about 1,700 regular or vocational high schools nationwide that fit that description, according to an analysis of Education Department data conducted by Johns Hopkins for The Associated Press.

That's 12 percent of all such schools, about the same level as a decade ago.

While some of the missing students transferred, most dropped out, says Balfanz. The data look at senior classes for three years in a row to make sure local events like plant closures aren't to blame for the low retention rates.

The highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas in the South and Southwest. Most have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones — the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services.

Utah, which has low poverty rates and fewer minorities than most states, is the only state without a dropout factory. Florida and South Carolina have the highest percentages.

"There are no schools that meet the criteria here," says Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education

In Utah, Peterson said, teachers and principals track students who leave school — and then try to persuade them to return for graduation.

"We also publish high school graduation (information) at the school level in the school report cards," Peterson said, referring to the Utah Performance and Assessment System for Students report cards.

Teachers and principals have an incentive with the UPASS report cards to avoid negative publicity associated with dropout rates and encourage students who may leave school.

Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina department of education, said that part of the problem in his state is "we live in a state that culturally and traditionally has not valued a high school education."

Washington hasn't focused much attention on the problem. The No Child Left Behind Act, for example, pays much more attention to educating younger students. But that appears to be changing.

House and Senate proposals to renew the 5-year-old No Child law would give high schools more federal money and put more pressure on them to improve on graduation performance, and the Bush administration supports that idea.

The current NCLB law imposes serious consequences on schools that report low scores on math and reading tests, and this fallout can include replacement of teachers or principals — or both. But the law doesn't have the same kind of enforcement teeth when it comes to graduation rates.

Nationally, about 70 percent of U.S. students graduate on time with a regular diploma. For Hispanic and black students, the proportion drops to about half.

The legislative proposals circulating in Congress would:

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