On the Wind River reservation, it’s if they graduate, not when

Superintendent Michelle Hoffman congratulates a graduate at the Wyoming Indian graduation ceremony in May. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)
By Ron Feemster
— July 16, 2013

Even in the age of test-score accountability, no education statistic quite captures the aura of high school success and failure like the graduation rate.

In a Casper Star-Tribune article over the weekend, Hank Coe (R-Cody), the chairman of the Wyoming Senate Education Committee said graduating 80 percent of Wyoming’s high school students in four years — about average in the United States — was not good enough in a state that ranks fifth in per-capita education spending.

Michelle Hofmann, outgoing superintendent of Fremont District #14 in Ethete, testifies in front of the Joint Education Interim Committee in Riverton. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Perhaps not, if the state puts a dollar price on diplomas.

But on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where graduation rates hover near 50 percent and the return on a $16,000-per-student investment might seem even lower, experts are disinclined to rely on the four-year graduation rate as a gold standard for achievement.

“We’re getting them through,” said Michelle Hoffman, the outgoing superintendent of the Fremont County School District #14 in Ethete. “I have one finishing in December. She’ll be 21 years old.”

With a 4-year graduation rate of 49 percent, Wyoming Indian, the high school in Hoffman’s district, lags behind most schools in the state, not to mention the nation. But Hoffman counts only a 12-percent dropout rate. The most interesting cases, she says, are among the other 40 percent of students in each four-year cohort.

“There’s more to the story,” she says, pointing to the students whose achievements are not captured in the usual statistics. “We have completers.”

Special education students receive a certificate of completion but no diploma. They don’t count in the four-year graduation rate. Nor do the students who take five, six or more years to finish high school.

At the Wyoming Indian graduation ceremony this year, 19 students walked across the stage. But only 15 counted in the official graduation rate. Three took more than four years to finish school, and one received a certificate for completing an individualized special education program.

But visitors to the ceremony never learned who was who. On the reservation, each student counted as a success.

At a special meeting of the Joint Education Interim Committee and the Tribal Relations Select Committee, Hoffman testified before Coe and a line-up of other legislators about the challenges her students face.

“Thirty-nine percent of our students live in two parent households,” she said. “Forty-five percent live with one parent. Sixteen percent live with someone else.”

Many children who enter kindergarten start out a year or more behind the national standard. Hoffman puts a disproportionate share of district resources into the Kindergarten to second grade classes. If students don’t catch up then, she maintains, it is hard for them to catch up at all.

Among the biggest changes in the school district is a preschool paid for entirely by federal funding known as impact aid. At present, the state of Wyoming does not fund pre-kindergarten education in the schools.

“Seven years ago, our kindergarten students could not recognize the alphabet.” Hoffman told the committee. The improvement could hardly be more dramatic among the 30 children who go to preschool each year in the district. “Those kindergarteners can write their names. They know the alphabet and have some math concepts.”

Some of the discussion at the committee meeting centered on educational resources, teaching capacity and other things that $16,000 per student per year can buy. But for Hoffman, who cut $2.5 million dollars from her budget after sequestration, some more basic expenses are untouchable.

Jim Rose, interim director of the Department of Education, sees the value in various measures of student success. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Every student who comes to school gets breakfast and lunch. When students don’t appear, a school resource officer knocks on the family’s door to ask about the child. Most of the lunches are paid for with earmarked federal aid. The rest come from district funds. The school resource officer is a district expense to hold families — parents — accountable. The money comes from the pot that shrunk by $2.5 million.

“If I let my dog run loose, I get fined more than if I don’t send my kid to school,” Hoffman told the committee.

Jim Rose, interim director of the Wyoming Department of Education, knows that value of finding the right standard for capturing graduation rates. In his “other life” as chairman of the Wyoming Community College Commission, Rose notes that graduation from two-year community college programs is measured after three years.

“English language learners don’t always graduate on time,” Rose said. “Give them an extra year and their graduation rate goes up by 11 percent,” he said.

Rose also sees the value of using the four-year rate, if only because it is used in the other 49 states.

“In a global age we need to be competitive,” Rose said. “We need to hold schools accountable.”

But, like Hoffman, he says there is more to the story. “It’s how we use the numbers,” he said. “If you are going to use a single measure, you are always fated to a narrow comparison.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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  1. Gratifying to know students have the opportunity to graduate outside of the specified 4 year course! That is encouraging!