School dropout rate challenged

Duluth School Board candidate Harry Welty on Thursday charged the school administration with underreporting the number of students dropping out of public high schools.

District officials said the issue is more complicated than Welty's figures indicate.

Welty, a challenger in the atlarge race in Tuesday's primary, issued a press release saying the district's dropout rate exceed 20 percent, or more than double the state average of 10 percent.

Welty said he used district figures to calculate a dropout rate of 16.6 percent for seniors. He noted the rates could be even higher for younger students, since most dropouts leave school as soon as they reach the legal age of 16.

Welty compared the enrollment for the senior class against the number of students who received diplomas in June, noting larger discrepancies than the district's dropout figures indicated. He used similar comparisons of 1987-88 figures to get a 12th-grade dropout rate of 22.11 percent for that year.

Superintendent Charles Anderson declined comment, saying he didn't want to be put in the position of answering political charges made in the media.

Anderson's administrative assistant, William Juola, said it was difficult to respond to Welty since he hadn't talked to school officials or provided them with copies of his report or its statistics.

Juola did agree to talk about the district's figures. He said the district verified that 49 students dropped out of 12th grade in the 1990-91 school year and didn't enter any other education program. That figure represents 5.09 percent of the 963 students enrolled East, Central and Denfeld high schools and the Unity School alternative program.

Juola noted that not all students who are enrolled in 12th grade receive diplomas. Some must finish credits in summer school, some are in chemical dependency programs or are ill and don't finish, while others have left to finish their education at the district's area learning center. Some are special educa tion students who will continue in public school programs until age 21.

Because students can drop out at age 16, the estimated 200 dropouts each year are from grades 10, 11 and 12, a pool of about 3,000 students, Juola said. That calculation would put the dropout rate below 10 percent.

School Board Chairman Anthony Stauber said Welty could have brought his concerns to the board, which last year received the results of an independent study of the dropout problem. That study confirmed the district's figures, he said.

"We were just as concerned about the dropout rate as anybody," said Stauber.