Editor’s note: This is the second of five blog posts taking a deeper look at the racial disparities in our communities, from education to juvenile crime and homelessness. Read more.
Fewer kids are dropping out of high school in King County — but the improvement hasn’t made a dent in a persistent racial disparity. Hispanic, Native American and African-American students consistently have the highest dropout rates, even though they make up 5 to 20 percent of the student population in King County school districts.
For the 2011-2012 school year in Seattle Public Schools, these minority students had rates more than 8 percentage points higher than the district dropout rate of 18 percent. Native American students made up less than 2 percent of the graduating class yet had the highest dropout rate of 42 percent, according to an analysis of the data.
Focusing on specific groups can help, said officials with the Shoreline School District where the dropout rate for Hispanic students improved by 8 percentage points between the class of 2011 and 2012.
“We’ve made a lot of concerted efforts to engage our Latino students”, said Ellen Kaje, director of several programs for students at Shoreline, including the English Language Learner Program and Title 1, which helps disadvantaged students from low-income families.
Use of interpreters, bilingual projects and leadership programs in Shoreline help engage students in school, while showing value for their native culture, Kaje said. Some programs are specifically for Spanish-speaking students, such as the ¡La Chispa! leadership program in middle schools and La Cima in high schools. Kaje said that the district has focused on engaging Latino students because they make up a large portion of their student body.
School districts are equipped with the information, and in some cases the means, to prevent students from dropping out.
“(We pay) close attention to attendance, course performance and disciplinary actions,” said Janet Blanford, director of college and career readiness at Seattle Public Schools. The Seattle school district has seen its overall dropout rate remain at 18 percent between the class of 2011 and 2012, despite a $2 million federal grant directed toward dropout prevention programs.
Seattle reaches out to minority and immigrant students through increased community engagement programs, but doesn’t focus on specific groups. One key is to help students who face course credit issues that could prevent them from graduating on time, and can lead them to drop out. Directing some students to alternative high schools can help, school officials said.
That was the case for 16-year-old Mea Bennett, who has moved around. At Franklin High School, she said she was bored with her schoolwork and often skipped school.
“I didn’t know that (skipping class) would affect me,” Bennett said. “I didn’t want to be behind.”
Bennett now attends the Columbia School, an alternative high school in Seattle. There she said she feels more of a connection.
“I’ve seen change in myself. My mom was really proud of me. All this time she thought I was a bad student, but she has seen me come to this school where they focus on the kids. Teachers are like family,” Bennett said. “I love it.”
Schools can help with attendance, performance and behavior, but some of the time, students may face issues in their personal lives that cause them to drop out. That is what led Gary Hunter II, 20, to drop out of high school in Kent. He is now studying business at Bellevue College. Hunter said he isn’t surprised by the racial disparity in dropout rates.
“Being a minority, you’ve got to fit in with the majority if you want to be accepted,” Hunter said.
Hunter said he experienced what he calls passive-aggressive racism at his predominantly white middle school and later transferred to a more diverse school, which helped some of his problems.
“(Transferring had) a big influence in my grade work. There were certain things I didn’t have to worry about anymore. I wasn’t under this stress of how I appeared to people. Whether you were white, black or whatever you were, everyone was on the same page,” Hunter said.
Hunter still ended up dropping out for personal reasons, but added that he is sure a system of entrenched bias plays a role for students.
“I hear that everybody is equal, but there’s also a social structure that benefits people and at the same time it disadvantages people, just because of their culture,” he said. “It’s just one of things where you can only understand it if you’ve lived it.”