I just chatted with Linda Leigh, communications manager for SIATech, an Imperial Beach charter school that has received a lot of unwanted attention this week as the school with the state’s highest dropout rate, according to a study released by the California Dropout Research Project.

SIATech focuses on attracting at-risk kids to the classroom with technology. In 2005, the school won a Golden Bell award for high school innovation from the state School Boards Association. A typical SIATech student has “school-hopped” five to seven times, Leigh said.

“We’re not an average high school,” Leigh said. “We’re a dropout recovery program. Traditional schools have failed the students who come to us. … It’s not a surprise that our dropout rate is higher than the traditional high school.”

The report cited a 165.2 percent dropout rate for SIATech — a figure that is possible because enrollment is only counted once, but dropouts are counted all year. Therefore, if students enroll midyear, then quit, they count as dropouts, but don’t count towards enrollment.

Also, the Los Angeles Times did a nice story on the report, putting it into context with comments from some of the high-dropout schools, and from the California Charter Schools Association:

Daria Hall, assistant director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to improving education, complained in an e-mail that the report was based on “state-reported dropout figures that are wildly inaccurate.”

As an example, she said that John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles, ranked No. 16 in the report, has an official dropout rate of 9%, yet it has more than 1,900 students entering as freshmen but fewer than 500 enrolled as seniors.

“Unless almost 70% of the entering class transferred out, and no one transferred in, this school loses more than 9% of its students to dropout,” Hall wrote.

Rumberger, the dropout project director, said the data were accurate but conceded that the state’s method of calculating dropouts leaves a great deal to be desired.

“I don’t think the data are flawed,” he said. “I think the data give an incomplete picture.”

EMILY ALPERT

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