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May 31, 2023

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More questions than answers

Clark County's high school dropout rate has long ranked among the nation's worst, but a new report by the School District suggests that many students counted as dropouts have instead simply moved from Southern Nevada with their families.

The Clark County School District says it was unable to track down 69 percent of the high school students it listed as dropouts after the 2004-05 academic year.

Where those students have gone and their reasons for leaving school are unknown. The district is certain only that all efforts to track down their families were unsuccessful, which suggests that many of them might have moved from Southern Nevada - a region with an unusually high transient population.

"Right now we have more questions than answers," said Karlene McCormick-Lee, associate superintendent of research and accountability for the district. "But what we've found out so far is certainly useful."

Between December and January, the School District tried to interview the 1,926 high school seniors who failed to graduate in 2005. Of those students just 594 could be located.

The remaining 1,332 students had disconnected telephones, and the emergency contact information in their files was no longer valid. At least three attempts were made to reach each student.

"We traced some of the phone numbers, and they were for places like the Budget Suites," said Superintendent Walt Rulffes, who has pledged to make improving the district's 6.8 percent dropout rate a priority.

"Unfortunately few people left forwarding information when they moved on."

Aside from raising doubts about the accuracy of the dropout rate, the survey contained some good news. Of the 594 students who were reached, counselors determined that 201 of them - more than 10 percent of the total missing seniors - had not dropped out. They had either graduated from a comprehensive high school or earned their GED through an adult education program. Many other students were enrolled in schools outside Nevada or had been incorrectly listed as having left the district.

The purpose of the survey was to verify the district's records were accurate and also begin building a profile of the "average" dropout. Retired guidance counselors were hired for the project, and when students could be reached, the conversations typically ran 30 to 45 minutes, said Joyce Haldeman, executive director of community and government relations for the district.

"Many of the kids asked, 'What can I do now, how can I salvage my education?' " Haldeman said.

Of the 594 students, only three said they left school for a job. Nearly half reported quitting because they had been unable to pass the state's high school proficiency exam. And 36 percent of the students said they left because they lacked sufficient credits to graduate.

"There's an urban legend out there that children drop out to get these $60,000 jobs," Lee said. "According to this information, that is not true."

The findings bolster the district's campaign to help students prepare for the state's proficiency exam, Rulffes said. In recent years workshops, tutorials and specialized classes have targeted students who fail to pass the exam after several attempts.

The approach is paying off, Rulffes said.

The first-time pass rate for district students is steadily increasing. And results from the February round of the exam indicate a higher percentage of high school seniors are on track to graduate in June than in previous years.

Anita Williams, principal of one of the district's alternative high schools offering makeup and evening classes, said the survey's findings are consistent with the circumstances facing her students.

"I have kids who dropped out to go to work and help their families," Williams said. "They have full-time jobs during the day and go to school at night.

"Half of our students are here because they need to make up credits, and they're going to a regular high school all day and then coming here. That's a very difficult pace to maintain, and for some of them, it's too much and they just can't do it."

In reviewing student records, the district determined that a majority of the dropouts attended school through the spring semester but did not return in the fall.

McCormick-Lee said her staff is working to identify students at the greatest risk of dropping out so that schools can maintain contact even through the summer months.

Marcus Winters, a research associate with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York, said the district deserves credit for attempting to qualify - as well as quantify - its dropout numbers.

"What this shows is just how difficult it is to track down kids who have dropped out," Winters said. "My problem with the methodology is that they don't have a representative sample because the lower end of the population is so mobile. That makes data like this very difficult to interpret."

The district encountered similar problems in trying to survey the 2,100 high school students in grades 9-11 listed as dropouts.

As of March, the district had found just 715 students, while 1,385 had disconnected phones and invalid emergency contact information.

Of the 715 students the district located, 336 - 16 percent of the dropout total - were found to have continued their educations.

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