Come Laud PUHSD

It might be just one of those things, a total fluke, like getting the flu on the morning of a major history test you forgot to study for anyway.

Or, the 10 percent spike in graduation rates in Phoenix Union high schools could be a harbinger of things to come, which is probably what Superintendent Rene Diaz has in mind for the 20,739-student district.

At any rate, at a time when any news seems to be bad news for Arizona's public schools, here's a bit of good news: In 1994-95, the Phoenix Union High School District's graduation rate climbed to 56 percent.

That figure may not sound impressive. But the 1993-94 rate, 50 percent, is closer to the district's graduation rate over the past few years. The jump also continues an upward trend for the district since the 1990-91 school year, when the rate was a dismal 43 percent.

(In comparison, the 1992-93 figures for Maricopa County and the state, the most recent figures available, were 71 percent and 68 percent, respectively.)

Arizona Education Association spokeswoman Daphne Atkeson says the surge parallels a statewide upswing in graduation rates over the past 25 years. "We know more about how to keep kids in school," Atkeson says. But when you're talking about Phoenix Union, which has been plagued by an extraordinary dropout rate in years past, such an increase is significant.

Is something finally working?
"As soon as you can find the exact reason, bottle it for me," says Art Lebowitz, the district's curriculum director.

Lebowitz guesses it's probably more of a Gestalt thing--a combination of factors, such as magnet programs, making a difference. And driving it all, he says, is a renewed concentration on the graduation rate itself--the result of Project GRADS, the academic brain child of Superintendent Diaz.

"We have a much clearer goal and vision," Lebowitz says.
Spokesman Jim Cummings adds that the district is doing a better job of tracking students who leave for other districts and of identifying those at risk of dropping out.

He says Phoenix Union, through its participation with the Greater Phoenix Educational Management Council, also has improved communications with the 13 elementary school districts that feed it--Alhambra, Balsz, Cartwright, Creighton, Isaac, Laveen, Madison, Murphy, Osborn, Phoenix, Riverside, Roosevelt and Wilson. The council's mission is helping elementary districts better prepare students for the high school coursework that lies ahead.

"I've always thought there were strong relationships between our schools and the high schools," says Bob Donofrio, Murphy District superintendent.

Murphy's students move on to Phoenix Union's Carl Hayden and Central high schools, whose populations of around 2,000 can overwhelm students accustomed to smaller class sizes. Donofrio says transition programs like one at Carl Hayden--incoming freshmen are paired with older students in big-brother- or big-sister-type mentorships--help temper the shock.

"A lot of times dropouts occur within the transition year," Donofrio says. "If we can get them into that second year on track, they tend to do very well. It may take them four years and a semester, but they'll get out."

But that program, only in its second year, would have had little impact, if any, on the class of 1995. The same could be said for the Urban Systems Initiative, a National Science Foundation-funded program that aims to better align math and science curricula between high schools and their feeder elementary districts.

In any case, one year's figures are actually the result of a four-year process of ushering students through the system.

The shift in the graduation rate could be a simple fluke--one great batch of kids that came through. But state Department of Education research associate Jonathan White says that's highly unlikely when you're talking about 4,500 to 5,000 students, the typical size of the district's senior class.

Says the AEA's Atkeson: "The fact that they're showing a gradual increase seems to show that [retention and other programs] likely are having an impact."

Overall, Phoenix Union awarded diplomas to 2,551 seniors last year, compared with 4,583 students who should have graduated as the class of 1995.

The graduation rate is based on a four-year formula. It's calculated by taking the number of students who began as the class of 1995, subtracting those who transferred out of the district or who died, then adding in those who transferred in from other districts. The district then accounted for 264 students who went on to become fifth-year seniors this year and another 65 who got General Equivalency Diplomas instead.

The remaining number--4,583--was divided into the number of diplomas awarded.

That's opposed to an annual graduation rate, which takes the number of seniors who begin the year and divides that into the number of diplomas awarded.

The upward swing in the graduation rate bodes well for Phoenix Union's Project GRADS, an acronym for Growth, Respect, Achievement, Diploma, Success. The idea is to boost the graduation rate every year, reaching a 75 percent graduation rate in the year 2000.

The district, though, is letting each high school figure out exactly how it will accomplish this feat. Depending on how you look at it, that is either one of the benefits or one of the disadvantages of site-based management. But, for example, Maryvale High this year instituted a $30,000 computer-based "alternative school" that allows students to earn or make up credits in deficient course areas after school.

So what's to keep these schools from offering these sorts of programs in the first place, never mind the graduation rate?

Well, nothing, says Cummings, it's just that there's a new emphasis on getting kids to actually collect their diplomas. Sometimes schools just need a little push. The Maryvale computer program was already in the works before Project GRADS emerged, but Principal Jim Sandoval says it has given the school a head start in achieving the desired results.

"There's a strong need for an alternative school here," Sandoval says. But Maryvale will have to come up with $21,000 to keep the program going next year.

Phoenix Union officials say they are pleased with last year's jump in graduation rates, but won't be satisfied until it happens more regularly on its way to 75 percent.

Says Lebowitz, the curriculum director: "We're counting on it not being a blip on the screen.