Two city schools labeled as ‘dropout factories’

High schools may not usually fall under the dictionary definition of “factory,” but according to a study conducted at Johns Hopkins University, two local high schools are indeed factories — producing high school dropouts en masse.

New Haven’s Wilbur Cross and James Hillhouse high schools are two of the 14 Connecticut schools and 1,700 schools nationwide listed as “dropout factories” in the study on high school dropout trends. Since the release of the list last week, local school administrators and educators nationwide have criticized the study for its treatment of federal enrollment data and its use of the “dropout factory” label.

A representative of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools said the researchers stand by their conclusions.

Using federal enrollment data from the high school classes of 2004, 2005 and 2006, researchers compared a class’ ninth-grade enrollment to that same class’ enrollment three years later, in 12th grade, according to the study.

If a class’ 12th-grade enrollment was, on average over those three years, less than 60 percent of its ninth-grade enrollment, that school was labelled a dropout factory.

According to the report, the average retention rate for the three graduating classes studied was 50 percent at Wilbur Cross High School and 46 percent at Hillhouse High School.

But New Haven school officials said there are large discrepancies between state and federal enrollment numbers, with the latter tending to inflate dropout rates, because they do not take into account students who transfer out before graduation.

“Even though the federal government takes a more drastic look at dropout, they don’t calculate it the same way the state does,” New Haven Public Schools spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo said. “It only looks like we have more dropouts than we really do.”

According to a statement issued by the New Haven Board of Education, statistics compiled and reported to the state list Wilbur Cross’ four-year drop-out rate at 20.4 percent and Hillhouse’s at 20.9 percent.

Critics from school districts across the country said they are concerned that the Johns Hopkins study, by merely comparing a class’s freshman and senior year enrollments, does not consider students who transfer, repeat a grade or are expelled.

“Connecticut’s dropout formula takes into account that entering freshmen don’t always stay with their original school,” Superintendent of Schools Reggie Mayo said in a press release. “Some move out of town, some move out of state. Many of our students return to their countries of origin. Others find greater success at New Haven’s adult education program.”

Mary Maushard, communications director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Social Organization of Schools, said these phenomena do not fully account for such large decreases in enrollment.

“The natural attrition does not account for these big numbers,” she said.

Researchers estimate the margin created by transfers is roughly 2 percent, Maushard said.

Maushard said the recent release of the list is merely the latest development for a study that began at Johns Hopkins in 2003. The study was originally released in a 2004 report called “Locating the Dropout Crisis,” which did not include a list of schools but rather analyzed regional and socioeconomic trends, she said.

The researchers decided to release the list of schools after The Associated Press approached them for an article about high school dropouts, Maushard said.

Alexandra Dufresne ’96, a Senior Policy Fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children and former dean of Morse College, said disputes over statistics do not hide the gravity of the dropout problem.

“Under anyone’s measure, there’s no dispute that this is a huge civil-rights crisis,” she said. “You can’t make the argument that every child in Connecticut is getting a decent shot at life.”

But the research methods used were not the only cause for uproar — the label “dropout factory” has sparked controversy as well.

Several Yale students with ties to New Haven’s “dropout factories” said the title is unfair.

Blair Jenkins ’09, Public School Intern at Hillhouse High School, said she worries that the term might demoralize high-achieving students.

“I think clearly the use of the word ‘factory’ implies that the only purpose of the school is to create a dropout,” Jenkins said. “This is really going to hurt those students who want to graduate and really want to do something with their lives.”

David Kohn ’10, Public School Intern at Wilbur Cross, said he thinks the name belittles the efforts of educators.

“I think that just about everyone there is certainly working for the welfare of the kids,” he said. “They want the kids to stay in school. All the teachers I’ve worked with have certainly had the best interests of their students in mind.”

Jules Bolton ’09, who graduated from Wilbur Cross in 2005, said he is not surprised his alma mater has been labelled a dropout factory. He said he estimates that at the beginning of freshman year, there were around 700 students in his class. Fewer than 250 received diplomas at his graduation, Bolton said.

Like the researchers, he said the link between the relative poverty of the students and the school’s retention rates should not be ignored. According to the rankings published by The Associated Press, 82.3 percent of Hillhouse students and 96.32 percent of Wilbur Cross students receive free- or reduced-price lunch.

Maushard said the researchers have no current plans to change the dropout factory label, despite the controversy.

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