Conditions at so-called "Dropout Factories" make it hard for students to get beyond the label | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Conditions at so-called "Dropout Factories" make it hard for students to get beyond the label

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Ask Shanielle Freeman how she's doing in school and she'll say, "I'm trying my best."

But ask the Langley High School 11th-grader if she's confident she'll graduate in four years, and she'll answer sheepishly, "Well, I don't know. Not really."

According to a national study conducted by Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University and released in late October, that skepticism reflects an uncertainty sparked by schools' inability to retain, and ultimately graduate, most of their students. The study dubs nearly 1,700 schools nationwide -- including 40 in Pennsylvania, and five in Pittsburgh -- "Dropout Factories." Johns Hopkins gave that designation to schools where less than 60 percent of freshmen make it to their senior year.

Langley is one of the "Dropout Factories" within the Pittsburgh public school system: The others are Carrick, Oliver, Peabody and Westinghouse.

But school officials have questioned the study's methodology, while students attending the schools say the label doesn't help.

"That's a stereotype," Freeman says of the "factory" label. Langley, she says, "is not all what [the researchers] are making it seem to be."

The study's researchers focused on a formula called "promoting power," which compares the number of freshman enrolled at a school to the number of seniors in the building three years later. The study did not track individual students across their four-year high school career; instead its calculations relied solely on schools' enrollment rates.

Although the formula doesn't specifically calculate high school graduation rates, researchers say it is closely related.

"Schools that continually have 40 percent fewer seniors than freshman are usually schools in which the majority or near majority of students who enter the ninth grade do not ultimately earn a diploma from the school," researcher Robert Balfanz wrote in the report.

But, according to Pittsburgh School District spokesperson Ebony Pugh, the report's methodology is flawed.

"The report used a very simple calculation," Pugh says. "It ignored that many of our students are mobile.

"In this study, [mobile students] are labeled as 'dropouts.'"

Still, Pugh acknowledges that the district has "room for improvement." Even the district's own statistics reveal that, as a whole, 64 percent of its students graduate, while 35 percent drop out. And A+ Schools, an independent community advocate for improving public education, confirms that four of the five so-called "Dropout Factories" actually fit the description: According to statistics compiled by A+, of the schools Johns Hopkins cited, only Carrick graduates more than 60 percent of its students.

Pugh says the district's "excel.9-12" high school reform, which was implemented at the start of the 2007-08 school year, is designed to improve graduation rates in the future. The plan's year-one priorities focus on correcting behavioral issues, instilling positive attitudes among ninth-graders through summer orientation programs and implementing rigorous curricula.

"We know a lot of students are opting out," Pugh says. "We have to meet the needs of our students. It's not our intention to produce dropouts."

The question is whether calling their schools "Dropout Factories" helps.

Some students, parents and education professionals say they could do without the negative spotlight.

According to Dr. Lisa Vernon-Dotson, an education professor at Duquesne University, the term "Dropout Factory" can be a "self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Students hear 'Dropout Factory,' and then they start believing it," she says. "They need to hear it in a more constructive manner."

"That title can affect [students'] attitudes tremendously," agrees school-board member Mark Brentley Sr., who blames the district's administration for not publicly defending its schools and not refuting what he calls the study's "negative propaganda."

"All it required was just a statement" highlighting the positives of those five high schools, he says. "Students shouldn't be put in a place to defend their schools."

"People think we're stupid," says John Jeffries, a 12th-grader at Peabody.

Jeffries' mother, April Smith, hadn't heard of the study before being contacted by City Paper, but learning about it is "kind of a shock.

"That name is promoting dropouts," says Smith, 39, of East Liberty. "It's very derogatory. You try to be optimistic about everything, but that term seems like a dark cloud."

Anticipating criticism over the label, Balfanz, in the report, explained its use, writing, "We acknowledge that some people may view the term 'Dropout Factory' as a harsh and unfair term. We use it to describe a harsh and unfair situation.

"Our goal is to shine a spotlight on what has been called a 'Silent Epidemic,' the low graduation rates of the nation's low income and minority students."

The label "did create quite a stir," admits Mary Maushard, communications director for the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. "You can understand that no school would want to be a 'Dropout Factory.'

Researchers don't want it "to stigmatize or stereotype," or to insinuate that schools are "willfully producing dropouts," Maushard adds. "We would hope [the title] would not perpetuate the problem. It's used to motivate school administrators and the community to bring about change in schools."

It might work out that way, says Vernon-Dotson: "It could be a tremendous motivation for students not to be looked at in that manner.

"It's up to the administration and teachers to focus on the students who really want to change that image, and show that just because they're labeled that way doesn't mean they are that way."

Administrators could do worse than start with Peabody High School 11th-grader Todd Schatzman. "When we hear 'Dropout Factory,' we should all take action and try to have a higher success rate," Schatzman says. "Be the change."

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