This story appeared in the Oklahoman today. Western Heights Superintendent Joe Kitchens is an OEA member and strong advocate for public schools.
District’s telling symbol Western Heights’ dropouts gone but not forgotten
By Christy Watson
Most everything about the Western Heights High School graduation was typical. Valedictorian Ashley Ozment spoke of good memories and exciting futures. The band played "Rise and Shine” in tribute to the graduates. And Principal Jean Adams offered words of wisdom and encouragement.
But as the 133 graduates made their way across the Cox Convention Center stage and back to their seats, they had to pass by what made the ceremony most unusual: empty chairs. One for each of the 56 former Western Heights students the school counted as Class of 2009 dropouts.
At some point during the past four years, 339 students were part of the Class of 2009, Superintendent Joe Kitchens explained to graduates and the crowd. School officials confirmed that 146 of those students ended up at another school. Four received a GED. That left the 133 graduates and 56 students the school officially counts as dropouts. They were gone but not forgotten. They still had chairs.
Kitchens is frustrated at the district’s 29 percent dropout rate. But two years ago, the rate was 40 percent. In real numbers, 97 kids from the Class of 2007 dropped out. That fell to 81 last year. Behind those numbers are real kids with a shot at a better future.
In a few years, all Oklahoma schools will have to follow the more rigorous dropout formula Western Heights has embraced. Will all be as brutally truthful?
Western Heights is a district well known for its impressive student data system. The data are telling. Students who didn’t begin ninth grade at Western Heights dropped out at twice the rate of other students. These mobile students also failed classes at twice the rate of their peers.
Those figures mean little without action. "We know who the mobile students are and we know when they come into our school system,” Kitchens said. "It is our job to effectively identify those students and put people out there who are specifically charged with helping them the day they enter our school system.” It’s working.
Kitchens acknowledges the pressure that his focus on dropouts puts on school staff. Despite some criticism about the empty chair display, he isn’t ignoring the success of graduates. Most have college plans, and some already have several hours of college credit through a partnership with Oklahoma City Community College. But he doesn’t want parents and patrons to miss the big picture. With an entire section of empty chairs at graduation, that picture was impossible to ignore.
Watson is an editorial writer for The Oklahoman.