Dropout Rate Sees a Decline
State Report Reveals Vineyard Students Are Staying in School; Strong Network of Support Cited as a Key Factor
By RACHEL KOVAC
The student dropout rate at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School has been steadily declining over the past five years and now stands at just 1.7 per cent, compared with the state average of 3.7 per cent.
Dropout numbers for the 2003-2004 school year were released recently by the state and were the subject of some discussion at the regional high school district committee meeting on Monday night. School administrators attributed the low dropout rate to several factors: night school, the Rebecca Amos Institute, Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) remediation programs and a strong support system within the school.
"Part of it is we have two alternatives - night school or the Rebecca Amos school," principal Margaret (Peg) Regan told committee members."We have a pretty good tracking system. Other schools might not have the same opportunities for kids."
A dropout is a student who leaves school at any time and does not enroll again by Oct. 1 of the following year. Students who leave one school and enroll in another are not considered dropouts, if their enrollment can be documented. Students who leave school and later seek a general education diploma (GED) are considered dropouts.
In 2000-2001 the Vineyard posted a dropout rate of 3.5 per cent, but the number has gone down, while the state average has been on the rise. Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss said Monday the Vineyard is on the low end when compared to similar schools.
"Some of the other islands around here have a higher dropout rate," Mr. Weiss joked. Nantucket's student dropout rate stands at 5.2 per cent, with 19 students dropping out. Martha's Vineyard had 14 students drop out in the 2003-2004 school year. For the class of 2006, there have been seven dropouts.
The high school has 822 students and is one of the last schools in the state to offer a comprehensive program, where students can seek a college preparatory degree, a vocational degree or both. Students do not have the ability to transfer to another school in the area, unless they chose to attend Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. The high school, Mrs. Regan said, must make allowances for this and try to create programs to keep students from leaving school.
"I think we have done a lot of things to try to enhance the school to make it a more comfortable place for all the kids," said director of guidance Michael McCarthy."Even if students are struggling, we put support systems in place."
No single factor defines a dropout, but state findings show that low-income students, special education students and students with language barriers drop out at a higher rate. Also students who have been unable to pass the MCAS exam, which is required for graduation, are dropping out in larger percentages. Fifty-five per cent of high school students who drop out have been unable to pass the MCAS, according to the state report.
To combat this the regional high school has launched MCAS remediation classes for students. There is both a reading and writing lab and a math lab. The high school also tries to identify freshmen who had difficulty on the MCAS in elementary school and start working with them right away.
Mr. McCarthy recalled a student several years ago who was entering her senior year and had not passed the math portion of the MCAS. He said the entire math department set up a rotating schedule to tutor the student, who passed the next time she took the test.
"These are the types of things right within all aspects of the school," Mr. McCarthy said. "We are trying to help kids realize that what they are doing is important. The value of a high school diploma and getting to that point gives you more choices after high school."
Since Mrs. Regan became principal six years ago, the high school has developed two programs that offer alternative choices to students who find they are not successful in the general education program. One is a program of night classes. Directed by Juanita Espino, the program is mainly aimed at students who are close to graduation.
"Some of these kids have kind of a burning out of the school environment and want to get into a work environment," Mr. McCarthy said. "What we end up doing is picking up the rest of their requirements and doing those from an individualized programming after school."
The night classes provide students with an individual and accelerated program. For example, a student may need just one more credit to receive a diploma. The student can enter the work force and then take the night class.
Another alternative program is the Rebecca Amos Institute, begun in 2000 for students who for a number of reasons, cannot not succeed in the traditional high school environment. There are currently 22 students in the program. Some have learning disabilities; others have behavioral problems.
"There is no one form of child who comes into the program,"said director Katharine Kavanah."They come here for a variety of reasons."
The key to the program is flexibility, she said. Housed inside a former garden shed next to the faculty parking lot, the Rebecca Amos Institute is named after a former slave who settled on the Vineyard. Many of the institute students also hold down full or part-time jobs.
Ms. Kavanah remembers one student who particularly struck her. She met the student before the institute was founded. She had moved out of her parents' house, was living on her own and working at a child care center.
"She was brilliant, so filled with rage at life. Her grades were abysmal when she was in the regular high school," Ms. Kavanah said, adding: "Now she is in the honors program at the University of Massachusetts."
The institute has a waiting list. Students enrolled at the institute are not separated from the rest of the school. They participate in athletics, student council, theatre and other organizations. They have a 100 per cent passing rate for the MCAS and all must apply to either a college or vocational institution.
"Once you are part of this community you will always be part of this community," Ms. Kavanah said."We help kids with anything whether it is housing or doing college applications or references for jobs. It's just a microcosm of Martha's Vineyard. How are we going to make your world work?"