Hawaii student achievement belies high ‘dropout’ figures in study
We are writing in response to the Oct. 30 article
that characterized several public high schools as "dropout factories."
The assessment by Johns Hopkins University defines dropouts with different criteria from the Department of Education and fails to recognize that there are many students who earn diplomas who are not reflected in the data. We are not sure how they gathered their information, but would like to offer some insight into the students behind what appear to be very dismal numbers.
Farrington and Waipahu each enrolls more than 2,500 young people. Our students come from diverse cultural and language backgrounds. Approximately 20 percent of our students are learning to speak English while simultaneously endeavoring to meet challenging graduation requirements. Both of our schools receive federal funds because 48 percent to 60 percent of our families have incomes low enough to qualify for government assistance. The Johns Hopkins researchers should be familiar with the multitude of studies that link family income to student achievement. Many of our students face overwhelming personal challenges, yet they persist in working toward a future that will be better than their present lives.
Because so many students enter our campuses with academic deficits, we have developed a number of different paths that support the goal of a high school diploma. We have alternative programs within our schools and off-campus partnerships with others in the community. Some students take more than four years to earn their diplomas, but we do not consider them dropouts. Other students who must spend most of their time with us learning English are not able to complete the traditional high school diploma requirements. However, we work with the Community Schools for Adults that are on our campuses to transition these students to the adult diploma programs. They are not dropouts -- they are overcoming great odds to persist in reaching their goal.
Our schools are full of success stories. Many of our graduates continue to serve Hawaii as contributing citizens who have achieved personal and professional success. We strive at Farrington and Waipahu High Schools to create customized learning environments with academies or small learning communities that help our students feel they are respected, supported and valued. We have learning communities in culinary arts, construction, health, information technology, tourism, education and automotive repair.
We are proud of our dedicated teachers and staff, and applaud their commitment to help students learn. In addition, we have active partnerships with the University of Hawaii, its community colleges and many private agencies. A number of local businesses have provided workforce learning experiences for our students.
One of the most important elements in our mission is to give hope to all our students. As educators, we understand that we have to take these young people as they come to us and help them grow toward adulthood. We are overwhelmed with admiration for their talents and strengths, but we know that some are not equipped to immediately accomplish the rigor of the high school curriculum. As the standards for a diploma continue to move more toward requiring all students to be prepared for entry to a four-year college, we can expect to see an increasing need for alternatives for many of our students. Those who take alternative paths are not dropouts and the schools that support them are not "dropout factories." When we consider those who complete their requirements in more than four years, or who transition to the Community Schools and earn a diploma, our completion rates are higher.
The inflammatory language in the Johns Hopkins report serves only to further marginalize schools and students who are struggling to overcome academic, economic and social challenges. The report does not reflect the commitment of these students to persist through challenges to accomplish their goals. Our communities face serious socioeconomic challenges, but we are constantly amazed by the courage and enthusiasm of our students. They often face multiple hardships, and in some cases just making it to class is a personal victory. We will continue to find ways to improve the performance of our students, but we must remember they are adolescents struggling to lead meaningful and rewarding lives. The community needs to understand the lives behind the statistics.
Our schools and those who are working to support these young people are misrepresented by the term "dropout factories." We are their gateway of hope that leads toward many positive future paths.
Catherine Payne is principal of W.R. Farrington High School; Pat Pedersen is principal of Waipahu High School.