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Dropout factory?

A leading university labeled Oak Harbor High School a “dropout factory” and the top school district official wasted no time in expressing his adamant disagreement with that assessment.

Oak Harbor is one of 22 schools in Washington state identified to receive the “dropout factory” designation in a study by Johns Hopkins University for the Associated Press.

That study found that only 59 percent of the students enrolled as freshmen at Oak Harbor High School go on to finish their senior year.

Superintendent Rick Schulte said the information is damaging to the high school and described it as “crackpot” research followed by “irresponsible journalism.” The news broke Monday and was instantly available worldwide on the Internet.

By Tuesday afternoon, Schulte contacted researchers from Johns Hopkins University. He said the researchers acknowledged the information for Oak Harbor may be inaccurate and Assistant Superintendent Lance Gibbon is working with them to see if the information can be corrected.

Schulte also said the research doesn’t jibe with information from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

During a school board meeting Monday, Schulte questioned how the researchers identified freshmen students in the study.

Rather than using years in school, the Oak Harbor School District identifies high school grade level by number of credits earned. Students at the high school are considered freshmen until they have completed five credits.

“It makes our freshman class look very large at least for one semester,” Schulte said.

In addition to the 406 freshmen in the class of 2011, there are another 124 students scattered through the three higher grades that haven’t completed enough coursework together to get past the freshman designation. Six students who are supposed to graduate in the spring based on the calendar are still considered freshmen based on the number of credits they have completed.

Schulte said the report doesn’t identify researchers or show how the data was compiled. He wanted to see a copy of the report as well.

The Oak Harbor School District has an on-time graduation rate of 75 percent and an eventual graduation rate of 78 percent, which is higher than the state average.

Schulte pointed out that a major city that was highlighted by the report, Seattle, has a graduation rate that is lower than Oak Harbor’s. A school district where every comprehensive high school made the “dropout factory” list, Tacoma, had a graduation rate near the state average.

“You couldn’t have two cases more opposite and more different than Seattle and Tacoma,” Schulte said.

He spent his Monday afternoon learning about the report and then fielding media inquiries before heading into the school board meeting that evening. School board members listen attentively to his explanation but made no comment.

Schulte called the term “dropout factory” inflammatory. Because the report will result in some bad publicity for the school district, he’s busy explaining the school district’s side of the story.

He called the Associated Press to see if he could find out the names of the researchers and how they put together their information. The school district is also putting together a press release to send out to the community.

Bill Burnett, school board candidate and a frequent Schulte critic, was less inclined to poo-poo the study, which he attributed to a “nationally acclaimed” researcher named Robert Balfanz from John Hopkins University.

“Being in the bottom eight percent of all high schools in the state by this measure certainly warrants some good questions being asked and answered,” Burnett said in an email. He did not attend Monday’s meeting.

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