SHS officials rip bad report

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 3, 2007

COURTLAND—It might be unrealistic for Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University to expect Southampton High School’s guidance counselor to recommend the academic institution to its college-bound seniors this year.

After Johns Hopkins researchers characterized the local school as a “dropout factory” in a study commissioned by the Associated Press and released this week, school and division officials are frustrated and disappointed.

“We have grave concerns” about the study, School Superintendent Charles Turner said Thursday. “This information was put out without verification; then they tell us that we can get off the list if there is a mistake. It creates a little bit of a situation.”

Turner contacted Johns Hopkins on Wednesday to register his objections and to ask that Southampton High School be removed from the list.

College researchers made a mistake, Turner contends, and the high school should never have been included on the roll of 1,700 high schools across the nation that graduate 60 percent or fewer of their incoming freshmen.

The study claims that four of every 10 students who entered SHS in the ninth grade between the year 2000 and 2003 dropped out of the school before graduating. Southampton’s was one of 22 Virginia high schools that earned the dubious distinction.

Turner and other representatives of the school district on Thursday provided state reports that tell a different story.

The Virginia Department of Education’s statistics show that 82 percent of the high school’s Class of 2006 graduated with either a standard diploma or an advanced studies diploma. Adding in the 10 special education students who earned other types of state-approved diplomas or certificates brings the “school completion rate” up to 87 percent for that year.

Both numbers improved for the Class of 2007, which was not included in the Johns Hopkins study.

Turner emphasized that those statistics come from reports generated by the state, based on student demographic data submitted by Southampton County.

He said the Johns Hopkins report was “based on assumptions, not hard data,” and did not account for students who earned General Education Diplomas or those who had transferred out of the school or had taken longer than four years to graduate.

In fact, school officials say that students who take longer than four years to graduate are a major part of the problem with the Johns Hopkins study.

For example, the state’s graduation rate report for the Class of 2006 indicates five SHS students dropped out of school in the 11th grade. But the school’s No Child Left Behind report card, which appears to be a source for the Johns Hopkins study, indicates 17 fewer students entered as seniors that school year than started as juniors the previous year.

Turner and Assistant School Superintendent M. Timothy Kelly said those 17 students did not necessarily leave the school, an assumption that is apparent in the dropout study. The higher number also would have included students who were not promoted, but continued their education.

Turner said he had raised that point and others with researchers from Johns Hopkins, and he expects to hear from them when they have analyzed the new data he provided.

“We feel certain we are going to come off the list,” he said. The characterization, he added, “does not reflect us.”

In fact, division and school officials say they are proud of the work done at the high school, noting that Southampton actually sets higher standards for graduation than are required by the state.

Students pursuing an advanced studies diploma, for example, must earn 30 credits under the county’s standards; the state requires only 24. Similarly a standard diploma in Southampton requires a student to earn 24 credits, compared to only 22 as mandated by the Virginia Department of Education.

“We know we have rigid standards,” commented SHS Principal Allene Atkinson, who said she has heard no negative comments from parents or teachers since the report was released earlier this week. Teachers, in particular, “know the data was inaccurate,” she said.