Graduation rates show signs of ethnic disparities

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March 26, 2012 - 7:00pm

Editor's note: Today's story is the first in a three-part radio series on the state of education in Nebraska, culminating in a televised discussion program airing Thursday, March 29 at 7 p.m. CT on NET 2.

By way of full disclosure: Roger Breed, quoted in the story below, is a member of the NET Commission.

For Lincoln native Alex Pickerel, the reasons for dropping out of high school went beyond merely not liking school. A series of bad turns in his life pushed him into making what he now considers a bad decision.

"My Mom, she lost her job, and we lost our house," he said. "That really hit me hard. I just felt like I didn't want to be at school anymore, so I had my Mom drop me out. "
 


Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Click here for a chart showing average racial disparities in high school dropout rates in Nebraska and surrounding states from the last ten years.


Graphic by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Click here for a chart showing the differences between enrollment numbers and dropout rates in Nebraska high schools in the last decade, by ethnicity.


Pickerel left Lincoln's North Star High School and set out for the workforce. However, it didn't take long for him to have a change of heart. From the sidelines, he watched both friends and relatives from his former high school walk across the stage and accept their diplomas. Some were closer to him than others.

"I have a twin brother, and he graduated last year," he said. "I went to the graduation down at Pershing (Auditorium) and it was kind of hard. I could have been right there with him I think it would have been easier just to finish out high school."

Pickerel isn't alone in leaving high school early. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, almost 2,000 Nebraska students dropped out of school, according to the Kids Count 2011 report and the Nebraska Department of Education. A total of 21,513 Nebraska high school students successfully received their diplomas that same year. It's not a bad figure - it means around 90 percent of Nebraska high school students end up graduating. Break the data down further, however, and alarming statistical disparities begin to jump off the page. While Asian and white students shared a 93 to 94 percent graduation rate, other ethnic groups fell well below them. Hispanic students came in third at 78 percent, with African Americans a close fourth at 74 percent. The group that trailed the pack is Native Americans, at 63 percent.

Stephanie Morgan is executive director of the Nebraska Family Forum, an advocacy group with a focus on education:

"We see one of the largest divides between racial gaps in our country," she said. "And it's very disturbing."

Morgan added that the organization has been familiar with the gap and has felt that often, the discrepancies have been overlooked because of the state's high overall graduation rate.

"I don't think we're asking the right question yet, and I don't think you can just make these general assumptions across the board and get to the root of the problem," she said.

That problem has been a red flag for state educators, including Dr. Roger Breed, Nebraska education commissioner.
 


 

Roger Breed,
Nebraska commissioner of education

 


"Clearly, the data shows that there is (a gap)," Breed said. "Then the conversation turns to: What do we do about it?"

He said the Nebraska Department of Education is examining both districts' current policies and what each needs to do to shorten the divide.

"One of the things that we hope, and challenge all school districts to do, if first of all, be familiar with their gaps," he said. "And to take a look and make sure they don't have practices in place that actually enhance the gaps, rather than reduce the gaps. I think there are, at times, unintended consequences for practices."

Breed pointed to understanding the individual needs of each student in every ethnic group. One of the largest obstacles to overcome, he added, was the need to reach out more to students like Alex Pickerel, who may have been facing problems in their personal lives, or required additional help in the classroom. Behind the discrepancies are a student's individual needs; no two students are alike in the learning process, he said.

"We have the same amount of time committed for all students, even though we know, starting out the school year, that we will have some students that simply will require more time and more effort to achieve at a commonly expected point," Breed explained. "So what are the provisions for additional time and supports for those students that are needed, and how is your school or your district putting those in place, and how did they evaluate them over time? All of those things have to be dealt with."

It's a sentiment echoed by Pickerel, who also added it takes commitment on the part of the student. He said, in his case, his teachers were receptive to his needs and wanted to work with him; however, it was help he wasn't willing to accept at the time.

Looking back, he said it's not a path he would advise others to take.

"I'd recommend not doing it," Pickerel said. "If you need someone to help you do homework, there are teachers out there who will stay after school, help you. You just have to ask for help. You can't just sit there and think they're going to tell you to do something. With most teachers, you need to give a little to get a little."


The public media initiative, American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen, is helping communities across America identify and implement solutions to address the high school dropout crisis. Supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the multi-year campaign is designed to raise awareness and dialogue through national and local multiplatform programming. Targeting communities with highest dropout rates, the initiative also increases local engagement and action through collaborations and partnerships, and increases student engagement through teacher professional development and classroom curricula. Public radio and television stations - locally owned and operated - reach 99 percent of the country over the air, have built models for successful intervention in early learning, and have deep connections in the communities they serve. Nearly 300 partnerships have been formed locally through American Graduate and CPB is partnering with America's Promise Alliance and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Visit American Graduate on Facebook, Twitter or AmericanGraduate.org.

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