Poverty remains huge obstacle to graduation
GALESBURG — Household income makes a difference when it comes to getting a high school diploma.
A GateHouse news analysis of 40 west-central Illinois high schools has found the districts with the lowest graduation rates have almost twice the percentage of low-income students.
“Poverty rate is the biggest factor, I believe, that impacts graduation rates,” said Kewanee District 229 Superintendent Christopher Sullens. “There’s a lot of reasons for that. Students in low-income families don’t always have the resources to help them out at night or provide extra services, and so it falls on the school to do it.”
Students’ mobility or transferring between schools and districts also appears to have an effect, said Galesburg District 205 Superintendent Bart Arthur. A high pupil-teacher ratio, larger enrollment numbers and less instructional spending per pupil also correlate with lower graduation rates, according to an analysis by GateHouse.
Each year, the Illinois State Board of Education provides a report on every high school in the state; along with other data, the State Report Card calculates how many students per class graduate from high school each year, and the graduation rate marks the percentage of those students who graduate within four years of entering high school.
To get students to their graduation, the ISBE has implemented programs like Response to Intervention, targeted interventions, homeless education and transitional assistance. Districts have opened alternative high schools and offer free summer classes, searching for a formula that will keep students in school.
But with $861 million in cuts to state education funding since 2009, those very programs are on the chopping block. And with Gov. Pat Quinn recommending further cuts to education for next year, educators are at a loss as to how districts will be able to afford the services they believe some students desperately need.
Currently, Illinois’ four-year graduation rate stands at its lowest point since 1999, according to Illinois State Board of Education data. While mechanical factors like the state adjusting its calculation in 2011 come into play, poverty continues to cast a shadow over graduation rates.
“There’s been a lot of tension since the Great Recession trying to understand the inequalities and social mobility in our society,” said David Harding, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored a 2011 study examining the effect poverty has on graduation rates. “Comparing kids who have been growing up all their lives in high-poverty neighborhoods to those in more advantaged neighborhoods, you see big differences in graduation rates.”
From 2003 to 2012, Illinois graduation rates fell from 86 percent to 82.3 percent.
During that same time period, the proportion of Illinois students qualifying as low-income increased from 37.9 percent to 49 percent, according to the ISBE. Low-income students are defined as those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, are classified as homeless, migrant, runaway, Head Start or foster children or live in a household whose income meets guidelines for free or reduced-price meals.
“Kids who spend a very long time in a high-poverty neighborhood have lower rates of high school graduation,” Harding said. “And it looks like it has a pretty big effect.”
Of the 40 regional high schools in GateHouse’s Western Illinois Division of newspapers, half have an average graduation rate of 90 percent or higher over the past five years, using State Report Card data from 2008 to 2012.
In west-central Illinois, the five districts with the lowest average graduation rates over the past five years — East Peoria Community, Havana, Galesburg, Kewanee and Bushnell-Prairie City high schools — had an average of 55 percent of their students ranked as low-income. Meanwhile the five schools with the best graduation rates — Morton, ROWVA, Flanagan-Cornell, Cambridge and Williamsfield high schools — averaged 29.7 percent of low-income students.
Those high schools with the lowest graduation rates spent an average of $838 less per pupil on instructional expenditures for the 2010-11 school year, according to the 2012 State Report Card data. Their 2012 enrollment numbers were also more than double the size of the top five schools.
Other factors like the pupil-teacher ratio and average class size seem to correlate with the graduation rates, but state and local administrators agree poverty plays a large role in getting students to graduation.
“In Kewanee, our kids have unique individual struggles on a daily basis — a lot of parents don’t have economic means to get them to a doctor, or you have situations where siblings will stay home to watch their younger brother or sister,” Sullens said. “Because parents are in jobs at a lower wage level, they don’t have sick days.”
More than 70 percent of students in Kewanee District 229 are low-income — easily the highest in the region.
Illinois funding cuts
To assist districts with low-income students, the ISBE provides a supplemental poverty grant.
However, like general state aid, that funding was prorated by the state at 89 percent, meaning schools received less than they should have.
While the governor signed a Budgeting for Results plan that aimed in part to increase high school graduation rates for 2014, his budget for the upcoming fiscal year, released in March, proposes further decreasing general state aid to 82 percent proration, which would fall almost 18 percent short of the ISBE’s recommendation.
As a result of state funding reductions, the ISBE has cut at least $90 million in programs dedicated to helping at-risk or low-income students, including the elimination of Response to Intervention, a class size reduction pilot, targeted interventions, homeless education and transitional assistance.
“Those are support systems that help students and help educators reach students,” said Mary Fergus, ISBE spokeswoman. “We are at a point where these cuts are reaching into the classroom and having an impact on all students.”
Galesburg High School has offered tutoring programs and free summer classes for students to catch up on credits for years, but those programs might be missing come June.
“We’re extremely frustrated about that,” Arthur said. “There’s definitely an impact, and with Title I cuts through the sequester, we may have to drop summer school and tutoring. We need money and we need personnel to make these programs work.”
And for schools with the lower graduation numbers, hard decisions are on the horizon.
“It becomes a very difficult challenge for those schools that struggle financially and rely on state funds,” Sullens said. “When we’re spending $300,000 on alternative programs, if you don’t have the funds, do you just say the heck with those kids and spend the $300,000 on the students who want to be there?
“Morally, we should do everything we can to help those kids out, but the state’s making it pretty hard to follow your morals.”