American Graduate: Arizona’s Graduation Rate

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American Graduate Day is coming up. It’s a day when PBS stations around the nation dedicate hours of programming to showcasing efforts to keep students on the path to graduation. Eight, Arizona PBS is joining that movement, and will kick off a new “American Graduate” series with a look at Arizona’s graduation rate. Dr. Joseph O’Reilly, student achievement director for Mesa Public Schools, and Rebecca Gau, director of Stand for Children Arizona, a group working to improve education in our state, will discuss who is graduating, who is not and why. Also, you’ll hear the story of one student who has come back to school.

Ted Simons: American graduate day is set for Saturday, a national campaign to help more high school students graduate. PBS stations around the country will dedicate hours of programming to showcase efforts to keep students on the path to graduation. 8 Arizona PBS's joining that movement and we kick off a new American graduate series here on "Arizona Horizon" with a look at Arizona's graduation rates which leave a lot to be desired. More about that in a moment. First a success story. Producer Christina Estes introduces us to a program changing lives.

Keake Williams: We call them students. I call them my babies.

Christina Estes: Like most moms, Keake Williams like to brag. She is Margarita Sanchez. She's one of Keake's success stories through aspire, program designed to help people from low income families finish school and find jobs.

Keake Williams: Students say, I just want to get a job and they are for the focused on school at all. Then getting them to understand how important education is, and what kinds of jobs they will get without it, getting them to focus more on school than on the work ethic and how the work part will come once they have the education. That's the biggest thing for me.

Margarita Sanchez: Before Aspire I wasn't really into high school. I was never going. I was always staying home. I wasn't the kid that would ditch school to do bad things, I just stayed home and did nothing. I was never interested at all. I had a dream, but I felt that I couldn't achieve it.

Christina Estes: With Keake's help and her oown determination margarita became the first person in her family to walk on stage and accept a high school diploma.

Margarita Sanchez: It was really nerve-wracking and I ride a -- I cried a lot during the ceremony. It was a big deal.

Keake Williams: My personality is very maternal. Very wanting to take care of people. I get to see my work. I get to see Pi babies grow up, see them graduate and see them get jobs.

Keake Williams: She's not done watching margarita. While she currently works two part-time jobs there's another one in her future. She plans to attend college to become a veterinarian.

Ted Simons: Thanks to federal grants the program is offered at no cost to young people who qualify. You can learn more at

Ted Simons: Here to talk about Arizona's graduation rates is Dr. Joseph O'Reilly, student achievement director for Mesa public schools, and Rebecca Gau, head of a group working to improve state education. Thanks for joining us. Doctor, who is graduating, who is not, and why?

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: Well, the federal government came out with numbers recently that showed Arizona had about a 76% graduation rate. It's a little higher for whites and Asians. It's lower for Native Americans and Hispanics and African- Americans.

Ted Simons: Is this the one that ranked Arizona graduation rate 43rd in the country?

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: No, this is a more recent won. I think we were ranked 35th. They track the 9th graders from 9th through 12th grade to see how many are still there taking into account transfers in and out.

Ted Simons: As far as what you see out there, who is graduating and who is not?

Rebecca Gau: Well, unfortunately a lot of the data and statistics show that the Hispanic community is really struggling, and in Arizona this is really important because it's a growing and growing proportion of our student population. That's a really important thing that we need to start to understand is these kids are having a harder time appeared we need to find ways to help them.

Ted Simons: How do we address that?

Rebecca Gau: Well, the Arizona ready council just came out with a report graduation rate task force that spent a lot of time on this. We see a lot of opportunity in Arizona around nontraditional pathways that take students earlier in their educational career and start to teach them about college and career readiness, particularly that career focus. So they are starting to see the relevance by the time they are exiting high school. They understand why it's important to actually graduate. Our economy really depends on it more and more of our jobs require postsecondary degrees and our kids are not getting them.

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: That's engaging the students. That's what we saw in the video. Margarita got engaged. When students get disengaged that's when they are at risk of dropping out.

Ted Simons: Is that a reflection more on schools, more on families? What percentage of both?

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: I think it's a combination because you have students who are leaving because of family problems. They may have to take care, do child care. Maybe health care. It could be they are just not getting engaged by the school. They are dropping out has a lot of different causes that some need to be addressed by the schools but some need to be addressed by other aspects of society.

Ted Simons: Talking family outreach programs?

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: Those sorts of things. Child care is an issue. A lot of other issues.

Rebecca Gau: There is a report put out by the gates foundation called the silent epidemic. It found high school dropouts and asked them if you knew then what you knew now, what would you do differently or what advice would you have to your past self, kind of thing. They overwhelmingly said if I knew then what I know now about the workplace and about life I would have done more. They also interestingly said if adults had held me to the higher expectations and really encouraged me to do it I would have done it. So that expectation is really important.

Ted Simons: It is almost counterintuitive. Some would think that the higher expectations, the higher goals and standards, more dropouts, more kids saying, forget this. I'm out of here.

Rebecca Gau: They are still young and child psychology still applies. When you give someone a challenge a human being wants to meet that challenge. Innately we want to meet those challenges.

Ted Simons: Do you agree higher standards appeared such would be better as opposed to going along to getting along?

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: Higher standards and different ways of engaging the students to get there. In some cases it may be career focus. In some cases it may be high academic going for very high college engineering type of approach. But yes, the high standards is where the state is going. We have to bring students along so that they can meet those.

Ted Simons: I hear a lot about career focus. Yet when I was going to school it was mostly get an education, learn to read, write and thing and everything will fall in. Is that an old idea?

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: It is somewhat. What we try do is not focus on graduation but what are you going to do after graduation with our students. For the eighth graders we give them a test with NAU gear-up. We find how ready you are for college. Are you on the path to be ready for college, and we ask what their career interests are, their educational aspirations. Over 5,000 8th graders, 75% say college or grad school. A quarter said we don't know. 13 said I plan on dropping out. They don't intend to drop out in 8th grad but only three-quarters will graduate four years later.

Ted Simons: How do you keep the non-college-bound kid in high school?

Rebecca Gau: I think a career focus. And I know we're used to thinking about technical education and you hear the terms voc-ed, you think some jobs that we don't often think of ourselves aspiring to. But the modern work force is very, very different than when we all went to school. That career and technical education is really important and you can get six figure jobs with just an associate degree quite easily. Kids don't know this. So we have a lot of information that we can be sharing with students there are a lot of couple opportunities in Arizona for kids. Mesa has a lot of them. Many schools and chart respect do. Kids don't know about them.

Ted Simons: The career and technical focus a sideways question to what I asked you. Is there a threat of being so focused and so narrow in that particular scope that you lose the well-rounded education?

Rebecca Gau: There could be. That's a very good point. When those of us who advocate for this idea of helping kids think more about the longer term and what their high school course selection should be and how they stay engaged they are -- there is so much technical content that has academic implications. One of my favorites is an automotive 2 course which is an algebra credit as well, so chock full of information that the students can get academic credit with this very relevant content.

Ted Simons: As a kid of learned about math because of baseball. I would learn averages through that. That you don't have to be a baseball statistician but you have to find a way to engage in something. If you get that automotive class going and algebra involved it makes a difference.

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: It makes a big difference. Yes. Our completers, those who seem to get more engaged and they graduated at higher race. I don't have the exact rate in front of me.

Ted Simons: As far as new ideas as opposed to old, are you looking at other states?

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: One thing in the research area is a number of districts in a number of states have looked at what are some predictors. Kids don't wake up and say,I'm done. I'm not going to school any more. Kids disengage in very specific ways. Their grades go down. Poor attendance. Also their behavior. Montomery County schools in Maryland can predict first graders, are they likely to drop out.

Ted Simons: You mentioned costs as far as education funding. Is that the elephant in the room? Is that always a factor or how do you see it?

Rebecca Gau: I think that there are areas where targeted resource could make a big difference. We have some amazing districts that have been very creative in how they found ways to do some of these innovative career and Tech Ed programs. The data that Joe is talking about, one key way to get a kid reengaged when you see the attendance data, rule of thumb is 10%. This is important for parents to know, the rule of thumb is if your student is missing 10% of their academic time, a day, week or semester, they are at risk. So adult contact at the school is a way to get the kid reengaged. That's a low cost. It's high time but low cost way to reconnect.

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly: You have 3,000 students in your school, so we don't have people specifically tracking down these students. We try. But most of our graduates stop coming, they stop returning phone calls, and they are gone. So we don't have a specific targeted where do those kids go, what happened to them.

Ted Simons: Good discussion. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Joseph O'Reilly:Student Achievement Director, Mesa Public Schools; Rebecca Gau:Director, Stand for Children Arizona;

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