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Dropout Factories?

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By Damon Lawrence

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore say they're giving a harsh term to a harsh problem to try and help struggling schools.

The director of Roane County Schools says the researchers have branded two high schools in the system with an unfair label based on a faulty formula.

The truth depends on whose data you believe.

The study conducted by the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins shows that 1,662 high schools in America are what they call "dropout factories."

Both Rockwood and Midway high schools in Roane County made the list.

The study defines a dropout factory as a school with an average "promoting power" of 60 percent or less.

The promoting power, according to researchers, is the size of a particular class of freshmen - or sophomores at a three-year high school - when it enters a high school, compared to when that same class goes through graduation.

"The idea is these are the schools where most of the students who are dropping out in the country - the ones that are not graduating - attend," said Chris West, one of the lead researchers for the study.

Roane County Director of Schools Toni McGriff said she's never heard the term "promoting power."

She also said the school district tracks individual students and over the past four years, only 11 students have dropped out at Midway and 14 at Rockwood.

"That's not 40 percent of the class," McGriff said. "They're taking enrollment data and comparing it to enrollment data that doesn't necessarily have any relationship to each other."

Rockwood Principal Alan Reed described the mood in school this week as frustrating.

"They're labeling our school as one thing, and we feel it's not correct," he said.

The study by Johns Hopkins was conducted for The Associated Press.

'The story hit the AP wire and was picked up by news outlets in Knox County, which ran stories and broadcasts about the Roane County schools on the list.

McGriff issued a statement earlier this week disputing the data that was in the news reports.

She wasn't alone.

From Norfolk, Va., to Grand Rapids, Mich., to Tacoma, Wash., school

administrators across the country were stepping up to contest the researchers' findings.

"I will dispute it to the researchers," McGriff said.

"I don't care what their little formula shows," she added. "The reality is not that."

The people at Johns Hopkins were prepared for some backlash.

"We've had a ton of calls this week," said Mary Maushard, the communications administrator for the Center for Social Organization of Schools.

Maushard even left a message on her voice mail letting upset callers know how to contact the researchers who conducted the dropout study.

"We're trying to do it in a positive light, but it makes the schools mad because they feel like they're being called out,' West said.

The term "dropout factory" is what made a lot of school administrators upset.

"The title, I guess, is very inflammatory to a lot of people," West said. "They're seeing it as they're being blamed and not seeing it in a way that they're being identified for help."

McGriff said the negative reaction is because there's nothing positive about the label.

"First of all, schools aren't factories of any kind," she said. "We're dealing with children. We're not dealing with some product that you can care-fully package and mold to fit an exact standard and it roll off the line."

The method the researchers took to come to their conclusions has also been questioned.

They didn't follow individual students from ninth grade to see if they graduated, West said.

They simply based their research on ninth grade enrollments and compared it to 12th grade enrollments three years later.

"Say the ninth-graders come in 2003," West said. "We look three years later to see how many students are there now in 12th-grade. The idea is that if your school is doing everything right, hopefully the same amount kids will still be there. We don't know if that's the exact kid, but the idea is that you should have roughly around the same number of kids."

The Johns Hopkins study shows Midway had an average promoting power of 56 percent from 2004 to 2006.

Rockwood's average was 59 percent in the study.

However, according to the report cards issued annually by the Tennessee Department of Education, Rockwood had a graduation percent of 75.3 in 2006.

Midway's was 72.9 percent.

The reports for 2007 are expected to be issued by the state next week.

In Tennessee, 37 high schools made the dropout factory list.

Rachel Woods, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the state didn't issue a rebuttal because studies and reports on education come out all the time.

"I can stand behind what the districts do and what they report to us, which is what you see on the report cards," Woods said. "Those numbers are accurate."

West said the enrollment figures collected for the study were compiled from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data program.

The research wasn't exhaustive, he said, because the information is available on the Internet.

And even though some might choose to contest it, West said the researchers stand firmly behind their study.

"Of course," he said.

West said Robert Balfanz was the principal investigator for the study. Calls to his home and office were not returned, but his entire explanation of the study can be read at http://web.jhu.edu/CSOS/images/AP.html.