Nearly one in four California high school students will drop out of school within four years, according to the state Department of Education's most accurate analysis of dropout data to date.
Using data from the 2006-07 school year — in which 6.4 percent of high school students statewide dropped out — the department estimates that 24.2 percent of students would leave school within a four-year period, while 67.6 percent would graduate.
Another 8.2 percent of students would "complete" or "withdraw" from school. This last group is made up of students who pursue a general education degree, transfer to a private school or move out of state, for example, and aren't counted as dropouts or graduates.
The state's annual analysis is being touted by education officials as the most accurate set of data yet. In past years it wasn't always clear whether a student who left one school ever enrolled anywhere else.
But two years ago, the state began assigning unique identification numbers to students to track their whereabouts in the public school system.
Now if a student vanishes from a Bay Area district and turns up in a Los Angeles-area district a month later, for example, that student no longer will be considered a dropout. On the other hand, if a student tells a school he or she is moving but never enrolls at a new school, the student will be counted as a dropout.
Although the new accounting system does not track students who move out of the state or country, it still results in more accurate data than before. It also results in higher dropout rates than previously estimated.
"For too long, we had to rely on complicated formulas to make educated guesses about how many students were graduating and how many were leaving school without a diploma," state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said at a Wednesday news conference. "Using (the new tracking system), we can improve the accuracy of our count of how many students drop out, increase accountability and focus on preventing dropouts."
The latest dropout figure alarmed state education leaders, who said that something must be done to keep students engaged in learning.
"Twenty-four percent of students dropping out is not good news," O'Connell said. "In fact, any student dropping out of school is one too many."
The state dropout average is higher than in Alameda County, where an estimated 18.7 percent of students are not expected to finish high school after four years.
Tri-City school districts fare better, with students dropping out at an estimated rate of 6.7 percent in Fremont, 12.1 percent in New Haven and 17.2 percent in Newark.
Dennis Brown, director of secondary education in Fremont, said that while he's pleased that the district's dropout rate is significantly lower than the state's, he'll "never be satisfied until we go to zero."
The district's goal, he said, is to prepare every student for college, whether or not they choose to further their education. In comparing actual dropout rates for the 2006-07 school year, Fremont Unified had the third-lowest rate among the county's 17 unified school districts. On the other hand, Newark had the fifth-highest dropout rate, and New Haven had the seventh-highest.
New Haven spokesman Rick La Plante said the district's efforts in the past few years to increase the number of students who graduate included reopening a continuation school for at-risk youth, focusing on improving literacy and implementing "small learning communities" at James Logan High School so that students can learn in more intimate settings and make more personal connections with teachers.
Despite the double-digit dropout rate in New Haven, parent Karen Yifru said she's pleased that the state has more accurate data now.
"The dropout rate is high. We've been saying it for a long time. ... The numbers say a lot about what's happening in Union City," said Yifru, a member of Congregations Organizing for Renewal, a community group that supports small learning communities.
"When kids are engaged in school, then they have more hope. They have a future, they have dreams. "... They tend to stay in school more. You have less violence in the community," Yifru said.
The state's latest high school dropout rate report listed two dropout rates for each school or district. The first figure is the estimated dropout rate over a four-year period. The second number (in parentheses) was the actual dropout rate for the 2006-07 year only.
American High 5% (1.2%)
Irvington High 4.2% (1%)
Kennedy High 8.5% (2%)
Mission San Jose High 0.9% (0.2%)
Washington High 7.4% (1.8%)
James Logan High 6.6% (1.6%)
Newark Memorial High 8.6% (2%)
Source: California Department of Education