High school dropout rates in Tuolumne and Calaveras county are below the state average, however dropouts continue to be highest at charter schools and alternative programs, according to data recently released by the state Department of Education.
For 2010-11, the latest year with data available, Calaveras County’s overall high school dropout rate was 1.8 percent — well below the state rate of 4.3 percent.
In Tuolumne County, the rate was 3.7 percent.
The percentages translate to 40 of 2,203 high school students dropping out in Calaveras County and 81 of 2,186 high schoolers dropping out in Tuolumne County.
Dropout data from the California Department of Education comes with several caveats. It does not include students who continue seeking diplomas in an adult education program after they turn 18, and it may report some transferring students as dropouts.
However, estimated dropout rates have been a subject of national concern over the past several years.
A 2009 study from Northeastern University found that high school dropouts make $500,000 less than their peers throughout their working lives. They are also far more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated, and rely on public assistance than those with high school diplomas.
“The diploma gives them something in their pocket that they have for the rest of their lives,” said Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District Superintendent Dave Urquhart. “Without it, it just makes it so much more difficult.”
“Students who don’t get the diploma will come back five to 10 years later and say they wished they worked harder,” he added.
Tuolumne and Calaveras counties may have fewer dropouts due to their rural territory, according to Calaveras County Office of Education alternative education director Scott Nanik.
“Up in the rural counties, school attendance is a big part of the social network for students,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the case in big cities.”
The reported dropout rates for 2010-11 were highest at Gold Rush Charter School, Mountain Oaks Charter School and alternative high school programs in both counties.
At Calaveras Unified School District’s Sierra Hills Education Center, an independent study program, the dropout rate reached 36 percent — 11 of the 31 students enrolled.
Alternative education programs tend to have higher dropout rates because of the at-risk population they serve, according to Calaveras County Office of Education Superintendent Kathy Northington.
“They’re there to try to catch these kids that are starting to fall down,” Northington said. “This is something we constantly try to work on more, to not let kids slip through the cracks.”
At Sonora Union High School District’s independent study school, Ted Bird High School, the dropout rate for 2010-11 was 8 percent. The program had 87 students enrolled in October, and seven dropped out by the end of the year.
“It’s independent study and those students are at risk in general,” said Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mike McCoy. “Some might have health issues or be going through a crisis, like a pregnancy.”
Sonora High School, which enrolled 1,145 students in October 2010, had a dropout rate of less than one percent. The rate was even lower, two of 752 students, at Bret Harte High School. Summerville High had 11 of its 504 students, or just more than 2 percent, drop out.
According to the Department of Education data, 10 of about 80 students left Tioga High School during the 2010-12 school year.
But the figure is complicated by the fact that some of the district’s high schoolers transfer to larger districts, according to Urquhart. In some cases, those students may not show up again in the statewide data reporting system.
The dropout rates at Gold Rush Charter School and Mountain Oaks Charter School were higher than most other area schools. Mountain Oaks Charter School, which operates in three counties, had 11 of its 173 students drop out for a total of six percent.
Gold Rush Charter School had 21 of its 149 students drop out, or 14 percent.
“We have a number of students that we call ‘super seniors’ that don’t complete their high school diploma after the normal four years,” said Gold Rush Charter School Principal Kate Hansen. “The way they document that at the state level ... those are considered dropouts.”
Scott Nanik, the Calaveras County Office of Education’s director of alternative education, said that much can be done to prevent a student from leaving school before earning a diploma.
One strategy he uses is telling a student that dropping out is simply not an option on the table, offering them other accommodations or support services instead.
Another prevention strategy involves developing strong relationships with students.
“Having a personal relationship with a student so that they want to come to school and be connected is a big part of it,” Nanik said. “They feel like they’ve got somebody in their corner looking out for them.”