Of all of the Cleveland School District's many distinctions, perhaps none are less dubious that its record of student success. Cleveland's graduation rate - the most looked-at indicator of any district's effectiveness - is the rock bottom lowest in the state, 38% last year. District officials concede they have a chronic underachievement problem, but they question that 38% figure. They believe the actual graduation rate is considerably higher, and blame the district's own methods of compiling data for the discrepancy. ideastream's Bill Rice reports.
Teresa Serna is one of Cleveland's showcase graduating seniors. A salutorian at John Marshall High School on Cleveland's west side, she's already earned an associates degree through a partnership arrangement with Cuyahoga Community College.
Teresa Serna: It was an associate in arts, and I had a 3.72 GPA and they labeled me as magna cum laude. It was a lot of hard work.
Next fall Teresa heads off to Ohio State on a full tuition scholarship. In addition to her own hard work and dedication, she credits her stable home life for her scholastic achievements.
Teresa Serna: With my mom always being behind me academically, pushing me to strive for academic excellence and all that stuff, my mom was always behind me 110%.
Likewise with Ryon Graham, who also graduates this spring and heads off to Tri-C next year. His mom gave him the push he needed to go back to school after dropping out of Glennville High for four months.
Ryon Graham: She's actually, right now in school getting her master's degree, so she keeps moving forward, and I realized how important that was.
Ryon says he managed to catch up by attending Glennville's extended day program, making up what he missed every day after school. Both Ryan and Teresa are Cleveland success stories in the district's eyes, finishing school and graduating on time. Trouble is, say school officials, kids like Ryon's dropout status, though temporary, typically shows up as a negative in the district's graduation numbers - an important part of the state's school performance and accountability measures. Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says she just doesn't think that 38% graduation rate for 2002 is right.
Barbara Byrd-Bennett: We have in fact made some terrible errors on our part. And it is a part of the way, or lack of the way in which we did, the district, historically, has quantified data.
And she suspects those errors may in fact be the reason Cleveland's graduation rate is so much lower than those of other urban districts. Calculating the graduation rate is tricky business, says Chief Information Officer Peter Robertson. It's compounded even further with students whose lives aren't so stable - who move frequently for one reason or another, bouncing in and out of school or from one school to another.
Peter Robertson: It's called the stop-out problem.
And the stop-out problem, he says, produces an erroneously low graduation rate. He says many kids identified as dropouts haven't necessarily dropped out. They've simply dropped off the district's radar.
Peter Robertson: They may be students who went to another school district, and for whatever reason we don't have records of them having requested records. And we don't know if they've enrolled in another school, or they may be kids that are on a street corner and we can't find them.
The problem gets even more compounded, Robertson says, when a student drops out two or three times during the course of his high school career. Even though he or she may ultimately graduate, all three dropouts may be counted in the graduation rate calculation, decreasing it even further.
Peter Robertson: We understand that our true graduation rate is higher than the official graduation rates.
Some are skeptical of this idea. Joshua Hall is head of research at the Buckeye Institute based in Columbus - a conservative leaning organization that studies public policy.
Joshua Hall: I think it's highly unlikely that a large number of students stop out.
Hall concedes that some kids may get lost in the system, but he doesn't think that number is large enough that correcting it would substantially change the graduation rate. Consider, he says, another set of numbers.
Joshua Hall: In 1996 in Cleveland there were 7,682 students enrolled in Cleveland schools in 9th grade. By 2000 that graduating class - that same class - was only 1,700 students. So where did those students go? They dropped out. And nothing about changing how we calculate stop-outs is going to change the fact of those 6,000 students disappearing.
But the district's Peter Robertson says his initial statistics - as he begins to study the problem - show potential for correcting it.
Peter Robertson: Last year we had 1,817 dropouts in our file. We've been able to confirm that 712 of them were not even dropouts. 293 are confirmed dropouts, and 812 of them we still can't find out exactly where they went.
Right now the district's theory that it's doing a better job than the graduation rate suggests is only a theory. For proof, Robertson says, look ahead four years to the class of 2007 - the length of a full four-year high school career. It's hoped that, by then, a refined method of tracking kids and counting bona fide graduates will boost those graduation figures - perhaps to as high as 50% from the current 38. That, say school officials, and better diligence at convincing kids throughout the district what Teresa Serna and Ryon Graham already know.
Ryon Graham: You try to make it out there. You really can't do too much without any kind of education.
In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.