Statement: “We now rank at or near the top in these categories compared with California’s other large urban districts. San Diego Unified now has the lowest dropout rate of any of them,” school board member Richard Barrera wrote in a June 2 Voice of San Diego op-ed.

Determination: True

Analysis: School board trustee Richard Barrera and his colleagues frequently point to metrics they say show the school district is thriving.

Indeed, in a recent Voice of San Diego op-ed, Barrera claimed San Diego Unified has the lowest dropout rate among California’s large urban school districts, a feat it’s achieved as it’s kept a controversial seniority-based approach to teacher layoffs. (A judge tentatively ruled Tuesday that this practice is unconstitutional.)

The district’s dropout prevention coordinator credits efforts to proactively target at-risk students with mentoring programs and other engagement tactics with San Diego Unified’s relative success in keeping dropout numbers low.

A low dropout rate would be significant for a city school district that’s weathered years of budget crises, so we decided to dig in.

Each year, districts across the state report student data to the California Department of Education, which then crunches the numbers to evaluate school districts.

Simply put, a “dropout” is a student who has stopped going to school without transferring to another school or district, graduating, getting a GED or a certificate of completion.

In the wake of federal No Child Left Behind legislation, the state began doling out identification numbers for each California student to track their paths through the education system. This allows the state to determine dropout rates for groups of students, in this case those attending high school.

To make his claim, Barrera relied on an analysis conducted by San Diego Unified officials a couple months ago. The numbers apply to San Diego Unified students in the class of 2013.

At the time, San Diego Unified compared itself with eight major school districts in the state – a group that includes Orange County’s Garden Grove district and the massive Los Angeles Unified School District.

And indeed, among those districts, San Diego Unified has the lowest dropout rates for the past two years. It posted a 5.2 percent dropout rate among its 2013 class and a 6.1 percent rate for the 2012 class, dramatically less than many of the districts it compared itself with.

Here’s an important caveat, though: That list of “large urban” districts is based on similar size and urban characteristics but isn’t necessarily based on strict criteria like the number of students living in poverty.

Ron Rode, who leads San Diego Unified’s office of accountability, said the district years ago chose to compare itself to these districts, and that it’s changed some over time. For example, Former Superintendent Carl Cohn added Garden Grove to the list, he said.

A handful of large districts in the state are missing from the list. They include Elk Grove Unified in southern Sacramento County, the fifth largest district in the state, which posted similar dropout rates to San Diego Unified last year, and Capistrano Unified in Orange County, which had just a 1.6 percent dropout rate last year. Both could be considered urban, based on how you define the term.

Both examples have less than half the enrollment of San Diego Unified but the district’s list includes other districts, such as Garden Grove Unified and Oakland Unified, that are even smaller.

We couldn’t find a broad definition – or even a comprehensive list – of urban school districts in the state.

Whether a school district is defined that way seems to vary by the group that’s doing the labeling. For example, the California Teachers Association’s committee of union leaders from large urban districts includes representatives from 22 so-called urban districts, while the renowned Broad Prize for large urban districts considers 10 California districts eligible for the award. Three on the latter list didn’t make San Diego Unified’s list.

We looked at the dropout rates for the top 15 largest districts in the state to see how they stacked up against San Diego Unified.

We found the district’s dropout rates remain among the lowest in the group. Only Capistrano Unified, near the Orange County-San Diego County border, had a significantly lower rate than San Diego Unified during the 2012-2013 school year. We didn’t find any sources that referred to Capistrano as an urban one.

The point is, although San Diego Unified might fall short on context when it touts its dropout rate, it seems to hold up against districts with similar size, and similar numbers of students living in poverty.

But there’s another metric many education experts consider more meaningful.

Parents and government evaluators more frequently judge districts by the percentage of students who do graduate rather than those who don’t, said Russ Rumberger, a UC Santa Barbara professor who leads the California Dropout Research Project.

“Dropouts aren’t unimportant but ultimately it’s graduating that matters,” said Rumberger.

So let’s look at how San Diego Unified stacks up in this area, compared with the other urban districts it measured itself against.

These numbers don’t directly correspond with a district’s dropout rate because they account for students who may have died, moved to another school or even another country or received GEDs, among other variables.

Clearly, San Diego Unified is doing well compared to similar districts but it’s not the top performer in this area. That title goes to the Garden Grove Unified School District.

But that’s not the metric Barrera zeroed in on in his claim. He focused on San Diego Unified’s dropout rate, and claimed it’s the lowest among large urban districts in the state.

And that’s true.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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