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Schools Work To Curb Dropouts

Kealey Bultena

South Dakota’s education report card shows the state’s high school completion rate dropped slightly this year, but education officials say it’s mostly flat. South Dakota didn’t see a huge increase in the dropout rate, but the state didn’t make any significant improvements in keeping more students on track. Educators around South Dakota try to curb dropout rates by encouraging students to stay in class.

Across the state, about 83 percent of students manage to complete high school in four years. At a rough estimate, that means one in five students doesn’t finish his or her coursework on time or at all.

The Harrisburg School District in southeast South Dakota has a higher graduation rate than the statewide average. High school principal Dr. Kevin Lein says 94 percent of students in his district get their diplomas within four years.

"We’re really lucky. Our demographic has kids who have great work ethic and have a good background and terrific community support, so all the things are in place already to make students successful," Lein says.

Lein says his rapidly growing district faces some unique challenges with the infusion of so many new students each year, but he and other staff members strive to provide individual attention to high schoolers.

"We’re still small enough with two counselors that our counselors do review all junior transcripts to see where they’re at, to see if they’ve been keeping up. If we see some real gaps even in sophomores, we’ll discuss with them and their parents," Lein says. "Then seniors, we’ve already begun – actually we’re already through with – going through all the seniors, making sure they’re on track, how many credits they need that they know exactly what they have to do, so that’s the first step."

The next step, Lein says, has educators working with struggling students to show them paths to achieve high school diplomas. Still not everyone finishes in four years, and that’s how statewide graduation rates are measured.

"We do have quite a number of kids that end up completing after the time period, so sometimes that graduation rate is even artificial," Lein says. "And I think that’s a lot of schools in South Dakota, so that’s unfortunate."

"The positive of that is that every state is on the same playing field with reporting graduation rates," Dr. Laura Raeder with the Sioux Falls School District says. "The negative is it doesn’t take into account our GED kids, our special ed kids, and the kids that continue to enroll, and we do."

Raeder is the district's curriculum coordinator. Teachers there educate more students than any other district in the state. South Dakota’s evaluation of Sioux Falls shows about 79 percent of the district’s high school students graduate with a diploma on time.

"We all know our experiences in school, and especially teachers we sometimes had really good experiences in school, but our kids don’t necessarily all have that family that supports them, the family that reads to them, that asks them, ‘How was your day? What did you do?’" Raeder says. "And that for that child it’s just a little more challenging to get through the education system that we’ve set up."

Raeder says Sioux Falls’ actual graduation rate is substantially better than the state’s assessment. She says, considering extenuating circumstances, the districts’ graduation rate skyrockets 13 percent proving nine out of 10 Sioux Falls public school students successfully complete their secondary education. That means one in 10 doesn’t get a diploma.

"We spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out who that kid is, so that we can help to identify and serve that student earlier, and I’ll tell you: it’s all kinds of kids," Raeder says.

Raeder says every student has a different story. Some kids move to the United States as teenagers, so they’re coping with learning the language at the same time as completing the high school curriculum. Others are special education students with specific individual education plans.

"And then we have our students that have tremendous life challenges. Sometimes they are the ones that are the breadwinners for their family, and it’s hard to be in school for six, seven hours a day. So we try to provide some flexible scheduling for that student," Raeder says. "We also have students who are parents themselves, and we try to provide opportunities such as daycare to help alleviate that burden and help set them up for success with that high school diploma."

All of those students are part of the equation that determines what ratio of students makes it through high school in four years and what chunk of kids doesn’t.

Both Sioux Falls and Harrisburg schools offer alternatives to the typical high school class schedules. That way students who get behind for a variety of reasons have options to complete coursework and earn a diploma. 

"We do have some online coursework that we offer them for free. The state has a South Dakota virtual school, and we make sure that they understand if there’s any financial recompense they have to use but generally that’s free and we take care of that," Harrisburg High School principal Kevin Lein says. "And then our Leap High program, our alternative school, and then Volunteers of America. So I think we have a pretty complete menu of opportunities for these kids. We also provide work-based experience. If they have some electives and they have to work a job due to some socioeconomic circumstance, there is some academic rigor imposed on it, but we give them credit for those things as well, especially if they’re career-oriented. So there is a lot of opportunity for kids to make it if they want to put the effort in."

South Dakota’s school districts face starkly different challenges based on their location, size and demographics. Despite the labors of teachers and administrators, some students simply won’t finish high school. School districts often work with outside educators to ensure those students know they have additional opportunities to complete their education.

PBS’ Frontline program on Tuesday, September 25 examines the high school dropout crisis across the country. Hear from the program’s producer and writer during Tuesday's Dakota Midday. The program airs on SDPB-TV at 8 p.m. central time.

Keep your radio dial on South Dakota Public Broadcasting for a second story focused on helping high school students complete their education. Hear about area programs available to empower students to get their diplomas. That’s Thursday’s Dakota Digest.