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A Modest Proposal

The Memphis City Schools should count graduates as well as dropouts.

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Kroger can tell you how much applesauce you buy.

FedEx can tell you how many packages were shipped in April and where your own package is right now.

General Motors can tell you how many Blazers were sold in 2001.

Casinos can tell you the amount of money dumped into a slot machine every 24 hours and the total amount bet each month in Tunica County down to the last nickel.

But try finding out how many students are graduating next week from the 28 high schools in the Memphis City Schools and you're out of luck. Tracking teenagers, it seems, is a lot harder than tracking packages, groceries, SUVs, and gambling dollars.

Roughly 5,000 students will graduate this month from MCS high schools. Thousands more have dropped out, moved out, or flunked out over the last four years. And hundreds more are "on the bubble," depending on how well they perform on their final exams this week. And that is about the most specific information that can be gleaned for now from a number of different sources at the school system's central office.

It seems that public schools do a better job keeping track of failure than success. You can find the dropout rate and the number of expulsions and suspensions on the annual report card. But not the number of graduates, or finished products, if you will.

While everyone from mayors to school boards to councilmen to commissioners is busy reforming public education in Memphis, and before the do-or-die Gateway graduation tests kick in in a couple of years, could we please get a head count from each high school of how many people actually made it to the finish line for, let's say, the last four years? Then make that information readily accessible and publicize it so taxpayers can have another indication, for better or worse, of return on their investment.

Graduation numbers are at least as important as all those TCAP scores, SAT averages, dropout rates, and millions of dollars spent on new buildings and daily operations. A simple ratio of teachers and staff to graduates at each high school would be revealing and useful. I would bet that at some low-performing high schools with declining enrollment it is close to one-to-one.

I say that because I was surprised to learn from my son, a White Station High School graduate-to-be, that only 350 or so of his freshman classmates from four years ago will be picking up diplomas next Tuesday night. His freshman class had well over 500 students, according to Memphis Board of Education commissioner Barbara Prescott, who is also the parent of a 2002 WSHS grad.

If there is that much attrition at White Station, a large optional school with a high percentage of college-bound students and several National Merit Scholars, what's going on at other schools in Memphis and Shelby County?

No one is sure. I posed the question to Prescott, the MCS communications staff, and two people in the research and accountability office and got roughly the same answer every time. The graduation rate is not simply the inverse of the dropout rate, which is over 30 percent in MCS and can be measured different ways. A dropout is easy to lose track of, but a graduate is a graduate. Counting them, and keeping a year-over-year total, should be relatively simple.

"I don't think anyone in Tennessee does it," said Bill White of the MCS office of accountability.

Dr. Wanda Winnette, principal at White Station High School, said the school had 440 graduates last year and has never had under 400 in the eight years she has been there. But this year she estimates the final total will be between 325 and 380.

"We've kind of been losing more than usual along the way," she said.

She suspects a number of factors are involved. The optional school lost more than usual, suggesting that college-bound students opted out for easier schools or private schools. (White Station has both an optional and traditional program.) If those students don't live inside the WSHS district and leave before senior year, they have to transfer to other schools. Approximately 40 students in the traditional program are on the bubble until they pass exams. In those cases, said Winnette, "It's directly related to attendance."

While more students are failing to graduate from WSHS, the ones who are graduating are being offered more scholarship dollars than ever, Winnette said, with several four-year packages worth over $100,000.

Memphis City Schools offers four kinds of diplomas. In addition to the regular diploma earned by the majority of students, there is an honors diploma, special-education diploma, and a certificate of attendance for students who don't meet the requirements for graduation.

Last year, there was a well-publicized controversy over whether a handful of students at a couple of schools should have been allowed to march if they only received a certificate of attendance. There will doubtless be similar stories next week, but the real crunch will come in three years when the Class of 2005 has to pass state-mandated Gateway exams in English, math, and biology in order to graduate. State board of education member Avron Fogelman of Memphis has predicted that more than half of city school students won't make it, based on performance on other standardized tests already in use.

Meanwhile, it would be nice to know as much about our graduation numbers as our shopping and gambling habits. Anybody got a student scanner?

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