Washington News

The Seattle Times
October 6, 2004

County's Dropout Rates Charted

By LYNN THOMPSON, Times Snohomish County Bureau

Compared with students statewide, a slightly smaller percentage of Snohomish County high-school students dropped out of school in 2002-2003, but a larger percentage failed to graduate in four years, according to figures released by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

At an annual dropout rate of 6.6 percent, the cumulative effect over four years means that more than one-third of students in the county—36 percent—are dropping out or failing to graduate on time. The statewide dropout rate for 2002-2003 was 6.7 percent, down from 7.7 percent the previous year. Overall, 34 percent of students statewide dropped out or did not graduate within four years, the OSPI said.

Arlington high schools had the county's highest annual dropout rate at 10.3 percent. Everett had the second-highest, at 10.1 percent. Arlington Assistant Superintendent Warren Hopkins said the district's high dropout rate isn't acceptable and that graduating on time isn't as important as staying in school. "If it takes an extra semester, an extra year for some of these kids, so what? It's more important that they graduate," Hopkins said.

Alternative high schools, often the school of last resort for struggling students, had the highest dropout rates among individual schools in the county. At Scriber Lake High School in Lynnwood, 30 percent of the school's 361 students dropped out in 2002-2003. At Sequoia High School in Everett, 54 percent of its 542 students dropped out. Sequoia Principal JoAnne Fabian said almost half of her students are homeless. While working to form relationships and meet students' individual needs, she said, "we don't have a lot of influence outside the building."

The lowest dropout rate reported by OSPI was in the Darrington School District, where only 1.5 percent of students left high school before graduation. In Lake Stevens, only 2.6 percent of students dropped out in 2002-03.

The results paint a very different picture of county school districts than did the results of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning released last month. In that statewide test of fourth-, seventh-, and tenth-graders, students in urban and suburban districts tended to score higher than those in rural districts. But in graduation rates, the rural districts often had fewer students dropping out.

Pete Bylsma, director of research for the OSPI, said students in smaller, rural schools often feel more connected to their schools and more pressure to stay through graduation. Larger, urban schools, by contrast, can be more impersonal and less aware of individual students, he said.

Part of the national trend to carve smaller high schools out of larger ones, financed by groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is to increase student involvement and make it harder for kids to be anonymous or overlooked, Bylsma said.

Educators long have recognized the social problems associated with dropping out of high school. A report produced by the OSPI last year concluded that dropouts are more likely to be unemployed and to earn less when they do work. They are more likely to get pregnant earlier, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to use more social services. Dropouts also turn up more often in jail and prison.

The report, Helping Students Finish School, suggests a range of potential solutions, including increasing students' sense of belonging, establishing smaller learning environments, and adopting meaningful curricula. But all those solutions are expensive, said Ken Limón, the assistant superintendent for secondary education in the Edmonds School District. "A lot of these kids' problems are so individual. How does a school address each individual problem? It's a struggle for us as a district," Limón said.

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