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Houston's 'Zero Dropout

Houston's 'Zero Dropout

Robert Kimball, an assistant principal at Sharpstown High School, sat smack in the middle of the "Texas miracle." His poor, mostly minority high school of 1,650 students had a freshman class of 1,000 that dwindled to fewer than 300 students by senior year. And yet — and this is the miracle — not one dropout to report!

Nor was zero an unusual dropout rate in this school district that both President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige have held up as the national showcase for accountability and the model for the federal No Child Left Behind law. Westside High here had 2,308 students and no reported dropouts; Wheatley High 731 students, no dropouts. A dozen of the city's poorest schools reported dropout rates under one percent.

Now, Dr. Kimball has witnessed many amazing things in his 58 years. Before he was an educator, he spent 24 years in the Army, fighting in Vietnam, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and touring the world. But never had he seen an urban high school with no dropouts. "Impossible," he said. "Someone will get pregnant, go to jail, get killed." Elsewhere in the nation, urban high schools report dropout rates of 20 percent to 40 percent.

A miracle? "A fantasy land," said Dr. Kimball. "They want the data to look wonderful and exciting. They don't tell you how to do it; they just say, 'Do it.'" In February, with the help of Dr. Kimball, the local television station KHOU broke the news that Sharpstown High had falsified its dropout data. That led to a state audit of 16 Houston schools, which found that of 5,500 teenagers surveyed who had left school, 3,000 should have been counted as dropouts but were not. In early August, the state appointed a monitor to oversee the district's data collection and downgraded 14 audited schools to the state's lowest rating.

Not very miraculous sounding, but here is the intriguing question: How did it get to the point that veteran principals felt they could actually claim zero dropouts? "You need to understand the atmosphere in Houston," Dr. Kimball said. "People are afraid. The superintendent has frequent meetings with principals. Before they go in, the principals are really, really scared. Panicky. They have to make their numbers."

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