Disparity seen in graduation rates in area

CHAMPAIGN – Class of 2003 statistics are in, and some schools are celebrating success at keeping youngsters in school, on task and headed for graduation.

And some schools aren't.

Champaign Central High School Principal Don Hansen said he doesn't have copies of the numbers submitted annually to the Illinois State Board of Education detailing senior class demographics because his registrar sent them electronically and left for a vacation.

But Hansen's far from satisfied with the results. He said educators agonize when they lose even one student, and this year's senior class lost many more students than that.

"Our senior class this year had a lot of great kids, but academically, it wasn't strong," he said. "We had three kids going to the Ivys, and a lot of kids who weren't as strong as ours typically are. I can't tell you how many didn't graduate, but I can tell you the number for African-American students was no different than it was for white students."

Hansen said most of the prospective graduates who didn't make it failed an English class.

"We changed the requirement this past year, and some of the kids got caught," he said. "We changed it so there's no remedial level. There was such a disproportionate number of blacks in the remedial class, we eliminated it and went to a two-track system. We tried to move everyone up a level."

"The kids from the lower level could do the work, but they had a portfolio of work that had to be completed, and that was the downfall. We have to look at the portfolio requirement and the amount of work outside class that involves."

Central office personnel said 45 of the class's 232 graduates were black.

Of those black graduates, 16 attended Storefront School, an alternative program for high school students who need credits.

John Muirhead, head of Urbana Adult Education and overseer of the Storefront program, said 10 Storefront students were white and one was Asian. Storefront graduates are counted with their home school.

The Storefront graduates also include 11 Centennial students and one Urbana High School student.

Adult education graduates are counted with Urbana High School graduates. They included 28 white students, 21 black students, three Asians, two Hispanic students and one biracial student.

Judy Wiegand, principal of Centennial High School, said that of her class's 346 graduates, 48 were black, 280 were white, 15 were Asian and three were Hispanic. She said the class graduation rate was 97.2 percent.

"We're very pleased," Wiegand said. "This year, we made a concerted effort. We worked with the Urban League on Campaign 155. We met every week or every other week, the counselors and teachers worked with kids after school, they practiced tests, and they gave them additional assistance. Sometimes they went to students' houses to get them."

"We had some situations where deans and counselors would find a student and say, 'You need to stay after school to work on this English paper.'"

Wiegand said team teaching, informal mentoring, early identification of students with risk factors and other extra efforts have helped improve the graduation rate of all students.

Last year, the graduation rate was 92.5 percent, the first time it was in the 90 percent range.

"I want to keep it in the upper 90s, and we'll work hard to do that," Wiegand said. "But sometimes you have a class you really struggle with."

Unit 116 Registrar Lori Peete said 82 of Urbana High School's 330 graduates were black, seven were Hispanic, 23 were Asian, one was American Indian and two were biracial.

Those numbers include students from Muirhead's adult education program and Storefront students from Urbana High School.

Counselor Chris Hopkins said the school works hard to help students complete their degree. Students can stay after school Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to get help at a study center staffed by volunteers.

"They can stay as long as they like and get free assistance," Hopkins said. "There's always an English and math person there, and some days we have social studies and foreign language help."

The school also identifies students who need extra help and makes aggressive efforts to recruit minority students for enrichment classes and to keep them in the classes, Hopkins said.

"But we can always do better," she said. "Even losing one kid is not acceptable."

Scott Amerio, principal of Rantoul Township High School, said the graduation rate there was about 80 percent, "better than it has been."

Of the 148 graduates, 114 were white, 21 were black, five were Hispanic and five were Asian.

"Our mobility rate is high," Amerio said. "Our graduation rate was 75 percent the year before. A lot of the improvement has to do with our hiring a new social worker who was able to get more students involved. We hope the numbers keep going up."

At Danville High School, 298 students celebrated graduation, 198 of them white, 75 of them black, eight of them Asian, and one of them American Indian.

Hansen said many of the Central students who failed to make the grade – about 20 or 21 students – are now in summer school.

"For the first time this year, we're offering a senior summer school program and we hope many will finish the English requirement so they can go on," he said.

He said about half those students were minorities and half were white.

"It was one of those classes that struggled," Hansen said.

Tracy Parsons, head of the Urban League, said his agency followed the records of the 155 black students in Champaign and Urbana schools who were expected to graduate, and he's appalled at the failure rate in Champaign.

"The numbers at Champaign are unacceptable," Parsons said, referring especially to Central's graduating class. "At the beginning of the year, there were 155 students on track to graduate at Champaign and Urbana, and it looks like 110 of the 155 did, with most of them at Urbana."

Parsons also talked about Central's English class.

"An unbelievable number of people didn't pass the class," he said. "We worked to get it offered in the summer, and hopefully students will stick with it and graduate."

The Urban League offered tutoring services to black students during the past year, drafting University of Illinois students to help, and that program was very successful at Centennial, Wiegand said.

"At midterms, we polled the grades, identified kids who needed help and found the tutors to help them," Parsons said. "But the problem we had sometimes was getting students to attend those tutoring sessions. This is a family and community matter, not just a school issue."

Programs try to meet pupils' diverse needs

URBANA – Preston Williams says laws allowing children to make decisions about future education when they're 16 challenge school districts to find ways to make education more attractive.

"For us, Urbana Adult Education is a major plus," said Williams, the district's deputy superintendent. "That program has always been able to bring in different types of grants to fund very different ways of meeting the need of youth, programs that fit their lifestyles and offer alternatives."

The schools also focus a lot of concern and creative energy on students who are potential dropouts, Williams said.

"We've been able to work with outreach workers, a grant that's provided an outreach person in all our schools, " he said. "They work with families and children with attendance challenges. We try to make them progress. They're a liaison between teachers, the administration and families."

He said the district is starting a program this year that will give high school students a chance to make up credit during the school year, probably at night.

"Our counselors work with families and students to create opportunities for success for students," Williams said. "Unfortunately, there are still numbers to be concerned about, students who aren't interested in completing high school. And we're never there until we get 100 percent of them.

"Every year when we look at how many graduated and who didn't, we go over the record to try to understand what happened. If they're still in the program, we try to be flexible."

Don Hansen, principal of Central High School, said the Champaign school district tries to give at-risk students a head start in ninth grade with an academic enrichment program.

Central started a new program called Jump Start after the recently graduated seniors' freshman year.

"We saw they needed extra help, and we started Jump Start, a two-week program that brings at-risk kids to the school at the end of July and early August," Hansen said. "They're referred by teachers, and the kids who come through it say they're ready for school when it starts."

"We talk about the rigor of high school, rules and expectations and independence. They learn how to get from one class to another, how to get library cards, IDs and bus passes. We introduce them to the calculators they'll use for math class."

During the school year, Central helps youngsters who need extra assistance in an after-school program every night that is staffed by teachers in core areas. - "They can get help with anything, and there's good attendance, an average of about 50 kids a night," Hansen said. "And all our teachers make themselves available to students either before or after school and some hold specific sessions, like when a paper's due, so everyone can work together."

Scott Amerio, principal of Rantoul Township High School, said his teachers and administrators try to spot potential dropouts early and move fast.

"The first thing we see is usually truancy," Amerio said. "When we notice that, we have our social worker help them, meet with families and encourage students to come back to school."

The district's alternative education program funding was cut, but the high school has some money for a tutoring program.

Amerio credits the newly hired social worker with bringing the graduation rate up to 80 percent, up from 75 percent the years before.

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@new-gazette.com.

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