CARSON CITY, NV - Nevada's graduation rate declined 15.6 percentage points over the last decade, the largest drop in the nation, according to new findings by a children's advocacy group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
In all, only half of Nevada's high school students complete the 12th grade and the state had more "dropout factories" - high schools graduating 60 percent or fewer students on time- in 2010 than in 2002, the report found.
"Today, many of Las Vegas' dropouts are out of work and unable to jumpstart the economy because they lack the required credentials," concluded the report published Monday by America's Promise Alliance.
The findings are the latest to highlight Nevada's troubled schools, which are regularly cited as the most underfunded and underachieving in the nation. While Nevada has made some minor gains in recent years - reading and math proficiency are on the rise - parents and educators say the state's expectations for its students remain far too low.
"It just seems that we can't get a hand around it," said Willia Chaney, a member of the state education board. "We talk about the changes that we need to make and it seems like we know what we need to do, but I don't know if we are really doing it."
Nearly 72 percent of Nevada's high school students graduated in 2002, but only 56 percent received a standard diploma in 2009, according to the report. That's the lowest graduation rate in the nation and far below the national rate of 75 percent.
Only nine other states also saw their graduation rates drop from 2002 to 2009. In contrast, 24 states improved during those years.
Graduation rates are based on data provided by the U.S. Department of Education and exclude students who obtain high school equivalency credentials. To calculate the rates, officials subtract the number of graduating 12th graders from the number of freshman students four years prior. The formula has remained the same since 2002.
Nevada educators say the state has an unusually high number of
transient students who move from school to school or state to state, which may contribute to inflated dropout rates. Graduation rates were also influenced by the state's limited education funding, a surge in foreign students and a narrowly-focused economy comprised largely of jobs that don't require a high school diploma.
During Nevada's boom years, students dropped out to earn hefty
paychecks parking cars, pouring concrete or serving drinks along the Las Vegas Strip. After the 2007 housing bust decimated the construction industry, students continued to leave school early for
whatever work they could find to help their families, said Robert
McCord, former co-director of the Center for Education Policy
Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Nevada has the
highest unemployment rate in the nation at 12.7 percent.
"Students are having to compensate for family income," said Amy Henderson, president-elect of the Nevada Parent Teacher Association and a mother of five public school students. "They are either having to stay home and take care of younger ones or they are dropping out to get jobs."
The economic crash depleted Nevada's tax base and lawmakers
desperate to close budget gaps have consequently shied away from
investing new dollars into the state's public schools in recent years. Nevada ranked 48th in per pupil funding during the 2010-2011 school year, ahead of only Mississippi and Arizona, according to federal data.
"For more than a decade our teachers have been told, `You are going to have to do more with less,' and what we are seeing now are the results of a lack of investment," said Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, a statewide union.
The student population in Southern Nevada changed from roughly 70 percent white to 30 white during the last two decades, said Clark County Deputy Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Many of the students vulnerable to dropping out were performing at a remedial level and were black or Hispanic, he said.
Some Nevada parents worry that their children are receiving an inferior education compared with students in other states.
Karen Gray said that when her oldest daughter was doing poorly in her high school geometry class, school officials told her that most children struggled with math and that she shouldn't be concerned because the girl was not receiving a failing grade. Gray said her daughter ended up receiving a "D" in that course. She graduated in 2003 and Gray's other daughter graduated in 2006.
"I don't believe they received the education of where their abilities were," said Gray, an education researcher. "I believe they were far more capable than what the expectations were."
State Sen. Mo Denis, chairman of the Senate's education committee, said schools officials were overwhelmed by new students as the state's population nearly doubled during the last decade.
With population growth now leveled, educators can focus on
conquering the dropout rate, he said.
"I'm not expecting that this is going to be something that is overnight or a year or two, but hopefully we are going to see some improvement, probably more than we've ever seen before," he said.
Nevada's largest and most underfunded school districts - Washoe
County in the north and Clark County in the south - recently hired
new superintendents and launched efforts to graduate more students.
Clark County schools are promoting online courses designed to help students obtain missing credits needed to graduate. The program had a 37 percent increase in enrollment this year. They also started the "Reclaim Your Future" program, which sent school employees and community volunteers door-to-door to persuade some dropouts to return to school.
"We were able to retrieve most of them back," Martinez said. "The families, when we went to visit them, they realized that somebody cared."
Meanwhile, Washoe County School Superintendent Heath Morrison
was recently named the 2012 national Superintendent of the Year by
the American Association of School Administrators for overseeing
the creation of a five-year strategic plan to improve graduation rates. Since the program began three years ago, the county's graduation rate has climbed roughly 14 percentage points by assigning mentors to troubled students and persuading dropouts to return to class, Morrison said.
"Having our kids graduate from high school, that should be a
no-brainer," he said.
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