Ohio’s War on Dropout Schools

High school dropouts are potential high school graduates. I worked with high school dropouts and dropout recovery for the past decade and witnessed the transformation. It has been my experience and personal observation that students who drop out of high school (or middle school for that matter) are often an overlooked population in the field of K-12 education. It has also been my experience that once a student leaves the classroom, the practice of recovering and re-engaging that student into the K-12 system is often overlooked by many communities.

In the state of Ohio a school district can receive state funds for educating a young adult until the age of 22. Thus, a school can recover students and provide them the opportunity to earn a high school diploma until that student turns 22 years of age. This provides communities in Ohio a great opportunity to recover students and allow the recovered students an opportunity to earn a high school diploma in lieu of earning a General Equivalency Diploma (GED). In addition, communities can reduce their dropout rates and create better educated workforces via dropout recovery programs.

Ohio has a special designation for dropout prevention and recovery schools (DOPRs). Community schools, (commonly known as charter schools in other states) can seek a special designation from the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), to specifically engage in dropout recovery and serve at-risk youth. Community schools that enroll a majority of their students, aged 16 to 21, who are at-risk of dropping out or have already done so, may be defined as “dropout-prevention-and-recovery” schools in Ohio. Because these schools serve mainly at-risk youth, or students who are not currently enrolled in a school, they are considered a special subset of community schools for accountability purposes.

Until 2014, Ohio DOPRs were protected by a waiver process. ODE produces a Local Report Card for all public schools in the state (In Ohio, community schools are considered public schools as they receive public financing). This Local Report Card grades schools on a variety of variables. Thus, community schools in Ohio can be closed if they consistently earn poor marks on the yearly Local Report Card. Ohio DOPRs could, prior to 2014 when the state legislature failed to renew the waiver process, obtain a waiver that would protect them from the community school closure process. At the end of the 2014 fiscal year, the State of Ohio Legislature deliberately took non-action to reinstate an expiring law that provided a waiver to DOPR’s disallowing the Ohio Department of Education from closing DOPR’s due to poor academics.

For eight years I worked for a dropout recovery initiative in Ohio that had success in reducing the dropout rate for the county in which the initiative was based. I served as program manager for six years and initiative director for the last two years of my employment.
This initiative helped reduce the county dropout rate from 25.6% in the academic year 2000-2001 to 12.6% in the academic year 2007-2008.

At the time I was at the initiative, we partnered with eight schools that specifically served dropout recovery or at-risk students. Seven of the eight schools were community schools, and one school was connected with the local career technical center which served at-risk students who were suffering from truancy and credit deficiency but had yet to completely drop out of the high school setting.

The initiative earned national recognition while I was employed there. In October 2005, the initiative was presented with the prestigious Crystal Star Program Award of Excellence in Dropout Recovery, Intervention and Prevention. This annual award is distributed by the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network (NDPC/N), based at Clemson University.

In addition to receiving the national award, NDPC/N also named the initiative a model program in Career and Technical Education. Also, NDPC/N named the initiative a model program that has “Strong Evidence of Effectiveness,” the highest distinction within the NDPC/N model program database.

The initiative was one of twelve community programs selected to be prominently featured in a report entitled Whatever it Takes: How Twelve Communities are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth from the American Youth Policy Forum, located in Washington, D.C. The initiative also featured in the National Education Association/Youth Development and Research Fund publication Answering the Call: Addressing the Dropout Trend. (NEA, 2007).

In addition, the initiative was a 2010 Bellwether Award Finalist. The Bellwether Award recognizes innovative and trendsetting community college programs in the areas of workforce development, planning governance and finance, and instructional programs and services. The Institute of Higher Education, which is housed in the College of Education, University of Florida, sponsors the Bellwether Award.

Finally, the initiative was named 2011 Program of the Year by the International Association of Truancy and Dropout Prevention (IATDP). IATDP is an association of educators, government officials and stakeholders whose history of truancy and dropout prevention efforts date back to 1911.

Thus, from personal experience I know these DOPR schools in Ohio work. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE), Office of the Governor, and Ohio State Legislature will claim these schools are failing academically and accountability is needed. However, our initiative had accountability. As noted previously, DOPR schools took the dropout rate from 25.6% to 12.6% in seven academic years. In the academic year 2008-2009, ODE failed to provide our initiative with a county-wide dropout rate with their excuse being they were revamping the calculation process and it would not be a fair comparison to previous years based on the new calculation. In my opinion, this is absurd rationale and an example of ODE constantly moving the goal posts so no DOPR, or community school in general, can have long-term positive success or press.

ODE is in the process of developing an “alternative” grading system for DOPR schools that will allegedly take into consideration their unique mission and students served. However, I have seen the working draft of these alternative grading systems, and if the draft measurements are put into place, all DOPR schools will be shut down in Ohio in the next few years. Just to provide the reader with one example, the current draft graduation rate expectation for DOPR school is over 70%. There is no DOPR school who can meet such a graduation rate criteria year in and year out. It is simply impossible.

It should be no surprise that DOPR schools have an extremely high turnover rate. Students who have previously dropped out of high school are prone to dropout out of high school again. However, one needs to look at the advantages each DOPR graduate from these schools has on the community.

A 2008 report from the Economics Center for Education and Research at the University of Cincinnati lists the fiscal benefits to taxpayers pertaining to high school graduation. The study notes on average, high school graduates pay more in taxes ($564) compared to high school dropouts who only pay $316 annually. In addition, high school graduates receive fewer government assistance payments in areas such as housing, food stamps, health care, unemployment, and disability compensation, as high school graduates receive an average of $2,806 annually compared to high school dropouts who receive an average of $5,091. The study concludes, after subtracting the cost of schooling, Ohio taxpayers can realize a lifetime net benefit of nearly $210,000 per high school graduate, which amounts to a return of $11.62 for every $1 invested.

In addition, a study from the report The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School: Joblessness and Jailing for High School Dropouts and the High Cost for Taxpayers from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University examines the societal economic impact of high school dropout. This 2009 report notes “the average high school dropout will cost taxpayers over $292,000 in lower tax revenues, higher cash and in-kind transfer costs, and imposed incarceration costs relative to an average high school graduate.”

Thus, when one considers the lifetime cost to society a high school dropout has in comparison to a high school graduate, coupled with the lack of tax revenue due to lower wages over the span a high school dropout has in comparison to a high school graduate, DOPR schools pay for themselves, even with a poor graduation rate. Ohio saves monies by having DOPR schools, and whether it is ODE, the Office of the Governor, or the State Legislature, the war on Ohio DOPRs needs to stop as the entity of the wager of this war seems to lack knowledge of basic economics.

Authors Note: This Commentary originally appeared in the International Association of Truancy and Dropout Prevention Journal, Summer, 2015, Vol. 59, No. 1

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