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Behind CPS graduation rates, a system of musical chairs

Hidden beneath Chicago’s record-high graduation rate is a surprising fact: High schools still have a lot of trouble holding on to students.

A WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago analysis of graduation numbers for every high school in the city shows how many freshmen stayed through graduation day, how many dropped out and how many finished at other schools—including alternative schools. (Download the data here)

Map: Which schools hang onto the most freshmen?

Half of all CPS high schools saw at least half of the Class of 2013 transfer to other schools between freshman and senior years.

CPS officials say the school system encourages students and families to choose where they want to go to high school, and that includes transferring after freshman year.

It’s also the first time the public has been able to compare freshman retention rates at charter schools versus district-run high schools, because in the past charters reported transfers, while other schools reported mobility. The common perception was that charters were weeding out students who weren’t doing well, but the numbers were an apples-to-oranges comparison.  In fact, data show wide variation across all school types.

Graduation rates vs. freshman retention

The data raises an important question: How can schools lose so many students and still report high graduation rates?

At their most basic, graduation rates look at the number of students who enroll as freshmen, and calculate the percentage who earn a diploma four years later.

 Chicago counts students over five years to include students who take a little longer to finish high school.

Related: Chicago expands use of alternative schools

Chicago also counts students back at their home school. If a student  transfers from School A to School B, but still graduates, School A gets credit. Researchers say it’s best to track the same students over time.

Map created by Simran Khosla

Kenwood Academy is a good example of how students move throughout the system. In 2009, 439 freshman walked through the doors of the school. Sixty-six left the city or moved out of state, leaving 393 still enrolled. Over five years, 54 dropped out and 317 graduated. CPS divides 317 by 393 for an official graduation rate of 85 percent.

But beneath those numbers, WBEZ and Catalyst found additional movement. Not all 317 graduated at Kenwood; 276 from the original freshman class did, while 12 finished at other CPS schools and 29 earned their diploma at alternative schools. Kenwood also helped other schools’ graduation rates by enrolling and graduating 30 students who initially enrolled as freshmen at other schools.

Kenwood Principal Gregory Jones said the movement at his school is not atypical in an urban district with so many choices.

“But mostly, Kenwood kids stay at Kenwood,” Jones said.

John Easton, a distinguished fellow at the Spencer Foundation, said CPS has been reporting graduation rates more honestly and fairly for decades, following the same students from freshman year, rather than senior year, like many others.

“This whole calculating graduation rates correctly, using these cohort longitudinal methods where you follow kids over time really started here in Chicago in the mid-80s by a man named Fred Hess,” Easton said.

Easton worked with Hess in the 1980s and spent the decades since at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research and the National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers are no less complicated today than they were then, he said.

Related: Meet the companies that profit when CPS students drop out

“There are dozens of decisions and every single one of those decisions is going to have an implication for what the bottom line number is,” he said.

‘Dark days’ to top 20

In 2007, Noble Street Charter School wasn’t doing a very good job keeping its freshmen.

“We certainly weren’t actively trying to remove students from our campus, but if a student wanted to transfer or they thought maybe it wasn’t the right fit, we were kind of like, ‘OK. Godspeed,’” said Principal Ellen Metz, who was the dean of students at the time.

Metz said that was clearly the wrong approach. Of that first freshman class, just 72 of 132 made it to graduation day. 

As is true for freshmen at all CPS high schools, freshman who leave and graduate from another school are still counted in Noble’s graduation rate. But even so, Metz argues, the best way to make sure students don’t drop out is to keep them in the building.

“If a student ever suggests they want to transfer, we call that the T-word and it’s considered almost like ‘a swear’ here at our campus,” she said. “It’s something that you don’t say.”

Since 2007, Noble’s flagship campus has become somewhat obsessed with holding on to its students. The numbers for the Class of 2013 show Noble’s flagship campus kept almost 80 percent of the original freshmen. That’s better than all but 12 other Chicago public high schools.

Freshman Avonjae Dickson used the “t-word” all the time last fall.

“I chose a lot of schools and since I was late turning in my papers, I eventually had to come here, but I wanted to go to Lincoln Park,” Dickson said.

Metz said Dickson is slowly coming around.

“She’s sort of acknowledging, she’s starting to see, maybe I do like this,’” Metz said. “It’s a classic example why freshman year is so critical. We also could have, in the fall, when she was speaking that way, we could have said, ‘You know, maybe you’re right, maybe this isn’t the right fit, if you don’t like it.’”

Other Noble schools struggle to keep freshmen, but only one campus, Rowe-Clark, lost more than half of the Class of 2013. Twenty of the city’s neighborhood high schools struggle the most, holding on to fewer than 35 percent of the original freshmen. All are on the South and West sides.

Among charters, Urban Prep’s two campuses do the worst. Chief Academic Officer Lionel Allen said the data “unfairly paints a very dismal picture of the work (they’re) doing at Urban Prep.”

He said it’s important to note that Urban Prep serves primarily African American males. Nationally, that subgroup has some of the lowest graduation rates. Allen said he is also concerned that there are discrepancies between the numbers they track internally and those being reported by CPS.

Even so, he added, “we absolutely need to do a better job.”

“We would love to hold on to all of our freshmen,” Allen said.

A (second) choice

In a system of choice, where students don’t have to go to the school nearest to their house, it might seem that there would be no mobility. For the most sought after high schools, that seems to be the case.

Of the top 10 schools holding on to the largest percentage of the Class of 2013, six are selective enrollment. ChiArts, Lakeview, Prosser and Spry are the others.

But for the rest of the system, a remarkable number of students are transferring between their freshman and senior years. About 16,000 of the more than 20,000 graduates in the Class of 2013 started and finished in the same place.

Easton of the Spencer Foundation said the fact that about 4,000 students are still graduating after transferring is actually encouraging.

“Previous research had suggested that a transfer of high school students was sort of a danger sign,” he said. “That meant they hadn’t done very well and were trying to find another place so they were perhaps on a path to dropping out. So I find it very encouraging that many of these transfer students are graduating. Of course, the thing that you worry about is the quality of the program they’re going into.”

Of the roughly 4,000 students who transferred and still graduated, 1,200 actually finished at alternative schools, while just 59 transferred into the city’s sought after selective enrollment high schools.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation. Additional reporting by Chris Hagan, WBEZ web producer.

Support for this story was provided by Front and Center, funded by The Joyce Foundation: Improving the quality of life in the Great Lakes region and across the country. 

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