Last June, the Kansas City, Missouri, School District had to report a dismal 42 percent dropout rate to Missouri's Department of Education. This year, District officials plan to report a dropout rate of 10 to 12 percent -- a huge improvement for the 2008-2009 school year.
That's the good news. The bad news is, these numbers might not have anything to do with more kids staying in school.
Students who transfer to other districts aren't considered dropouts, and previously, the district could merely report that x number of students transferred out of the KCMSD each year. But last fall, Missouri's Department of Education changed their standards. If the school district couldn't prove where each student went -- which means providing the name of the student's new school and the exact dates of departure and re-enrollment -- then that student was classified as a dropout.
Finding out about the new rules in March 2008 was "like if it were the last two minutes of the Super Bowl and they tell
you that now, the end zone is in a different spot," says Michelle Metje, the District's Coordinator of Transition Services. She keeps track of attendance at Kansas City's 62 public schools. Until this year, Kansas City District's records were poorly kept, Metje says."This time last year, we didn't know where 2,500 kids were."
Her staff was "devastated."
The state gave the KCMSD a grace period: If they could document where the kids went, Kansas City's 2008
dropout rate could be amended, Metje says. So she coordinated what she calls an "emergency fire drill" to fix the KCMSD's records. She and her staff of Student Data Analysts (SDAs) started by visiting all 62 schools and physically pulling every transcript request that transferring students filed.
Metje also used a computer system called MOSIS to track down some missing students. Schools can no longer use Social Security numbers to I.D. kids because many are undocumented citizens, Metje says. In MOSIS, each kid is assigned a new number to identify them as a student within the state of Missouri, a process that started in 2005. Using MOSIS's I.D. numbers to search for KCMSD students classified as dropouts, Metje says, "I found 89 kids who'd left to different districts in one day." In all, she estimates that she personally corrected 10,000 student files.
The District's IT department created a program to track the kids whose destinations were still unknown. In a few months, Metje and her team singlehandedly reduced the number of "missing" kids from 2,500 to just under 400.
By the end of summer, the state amended the District's 2007-2008 dropout rate from 42 percent to 21 percent.
Last year's scare forced Metje and the head of Pupil Services to drastically improve the District's record-keeping, and the staff clearly accomplished a major feat.
But comparing last year's data with this year's is like apples and oranges. Whether or not Kansas City's public school dropout rate has improved remains a total mystery, doesn't it?
Andre Riley, the District's Communications Specialist, says it's the District's procedures that have improved, not the dropout rate itself. But there's still good news in that. "Through our approved accounting procedures, we are able to demonstrate what we believed all along: While we do have a significant dropout problem, it isn't as drastic as some would have you believe," says Riley.
Riley says today that he's tied up in the District's superintendent search. Someone ought to suggest a new motto to the two candidates: Kansas City, Missouri, Schools: Not as Bad as You Thought.