The AJC has been looking at Hall County over the last few weeks because of the high number of students it moves from its regular high schools to its alternative school. The practice has long been a source of complaints from a few folks in Hall, including a regular poster here at Get Schooled who often shared troubling numbers about transfer rates.
In a data analysis, the AJC found multiple years in which a small number of graduates affected whether schools made adequate year progress, better known as AYP. The AJC found that three of Hall’s high schools missed their graduation-rate targets in 2007; East Hall missed by 14 students. Chestatee was off by three students, and Johnson High missed by one. (The AJC notes that Chestatee and Johnson still made AYP because of a second-chance option that allows schools to use a multi-year average.)
During the next two years, when transfers to Hall’s alternative school, Lanier Career Academy, jumped, the three schools posted better outcomes. East Hall made its graduation-rate goals by 10 students in 2008 and nine in 2009. Johnson did so by 12 students in 2008 and 11 in 2009. Chestatee did so by 18 students in 2008 and 14 in 2009.
The AJC data analysis found that during those two years, Hall high schools transferred a total of 79 students to Lanier at the last minute. State data obtained by the AJC does not show where the transfers originated.
In the latest piece, AJC investigative reporter Heather Vogell talked to transferred students about their experiences.
Dillan Hatcher said officials at Chestatee High School told him he was hurting the school’s chances of meeting federal standards for its graduation rate. Hatcher failed one portion of the Georgia High School Graduation Test and, as a result, expected to receive a certificate of performance instead of a diploma. Only diplomas boost a school’s graduation rate.
Hatcher said that when he arrived at Lanier Career Academy the final week of school, educators told him it was too late in the year to enroll in any programs. He said he sat in front of a computer, texted friends and stared at the wall. “I went for nothing,” he said. “I should have just gone home.”
Hall’s practice of transferring struggling students from regular high schools to Lanier days before graduation has been criticized by some who questioned whether the district simply shuffled students around to game the state’s accountability system. The pressure is much greater on regular high schools to meet graduation-rate standards than on Lanier.
Superintendent Will Schofield has vigorously defended the transfers. Last week, however, he said it is possible high schools had moved students to benefit their graduation rate in a few instances. But he said such transfers are not district practice. “I would be pretty Pollyannaish if I said that that didn’t happen at some point somewhere,” he said. “But in terms of the whole philosophy of the program, that’s not who we are.”
At one point, West Hall High School was in the running for an award — a Blue Ribbon of Excellence — but missed adequate yearly progress, or AYP, by three students, he said. All the district had to do was transfer the three, he said, but school officials “took our lumps.”
Overall, the district has defended sending students to Lanier, saying the moves are almost always voluntary and allow the district to provide assistance to students in danger of dropping out. Some are studying to retake the graduation test over the summer; others may take GED classes. Enrollment in Lanier even at the end of the year improves chances students will continue in their studies, officials said.
The Hall district in northeast Georgia is only the latest school system to face accusations of monkeying with the numbers to try to improve schools’ status under the accountability system built after the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this month that, in the past three years, at least 94 Hall County students who were due to receive certificates instead of diplomas transferred to Lanier in the final days of the school year. A 2009 email by the former principal for Lanier urged other schools to transfer their certificate students to Lanier at semester’s end “to improve your graduation rate.”
Hatcher said that, after he failed the graduation test, Chestatee High officials pulled him into the school office and told him he needed to go to Lanier. They convinced his father the move was good for him. “They said you’ll learn everything you need at LCA,” said Hatcher, who was reluctant to leave the school he had attended since freshman year.
“When I got to LCA, they said, ‘Get on the computer and do whatever,’ ” he said. “They said, ‘It’s too late in the year; we can’t get you in a program.’ ” He passed the graduation test re-test anyway. A few weeks later, he received his diploma.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog