Dropout Rates Nearly Double in Billerica
BILLERICA -- The percentage of students enrolled in the school district who dropped out nearly doubled from the Class of 2016 to the Class of 2017, according to numbers provided by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In total, 6.5 percent of students expected to graduate from Billerica Public Schools in 2017 -- the most recent year of data available -- dropped out of high school.
In the previous class, 3.4 percent of students dropped out. This is similar to the rates of previous years, which have hovered at 4.5 percent or below since 2012.
Meanwhile, the dropout rate for the entire high school-aged student population in a given year -- as opposed to a single “cohort” or class -- has increased, but only slightly.
In the 2016-2017 school year, the dropout rate for all classes was 1.6 percent, equivalent to 19 students. The previous year it was 1.5 percent and the year before it was 1.2 percent, the lowest rate since 2006.
The most recent numbers are below the state average, which is 1.8 percent, but above Lowell’s, which is 1.2 percent.
Meanwhile, Billerica’s dropout rate for the Class of 2017 is above the state average, which is 4.9 percent and on par with Lowell’s, which is 6.5 percent.
Under both ways of measuring the dropout rate, Billerica exceeds nearby towns like Tewksbury, Chelmsford, Wilmington and Burlington in the most recent numbers provided by DESE.
Superintendent Tim Piwowar said the 6.5 percent cohort dropout rate is likely a “random statistical difference.”
He said the district focuses more on the dropout rate across high school classes and these percentages should be viewed within a larger context.
The graduation rate is trending up and, despite a slight increase in the past two years of data, the dropout rate is trending down, he said.
“I think that’s really telling the story of what we’re doing as a district instead of one data point,” he said.
The four-year high school graduation rate takes into consideration dropouts as well as students who were expelled, earned a GED, completed but did not graduate or are still in school. In 2017, the graduation rate at the high school was 86.9 percent. From 2013 to 2016, the rate increased from 88.5 percent to 92.4 percent.
When asked about the dropout rate at nearby districts, Piwowar said Billerica does not compare itself in this measure to other districts, because each community has its own “unique characteristics.”
“One of our core values is I believe we all have a collective responsibility for all of our students,” he said. “I think we know that we are continuing to work to meet the needs of all of our students.”
School Committee member John Burrows, who was elected in April of this year, said he was “shocked” by the dropout numbers, which came up during public comment at the School Committee’s retreat this summer weeks before the first day of school this Wednesday, Sept. 5.
“It’s not just a high school thing,” he said. “That means we’re failing them in middle and elementary.”
He said any number of students dropping out is a concern and the district should be reaching out to them.
School Committee Chairwoman Katie Mahoney echoed Piwowar’s message that the numbers should be taken in context.
“I’m concerned for the children (who dropped out), of course, but I’m not concerned the district is in any great crisis,” she said.
She said its the School Committee’s job is to make sure programs are in place to keep students in school.
“I think we can always look to make any programs that we have better, but we are doing that and discussing that as a committee,” Mahoney said.
Piwowar said the district received the numbers from the state in February and the School Committee generally meets to discuss them, and other numbers, during a fall meeting.
For students at risk of dropping out, the district has several programs, some which are expanding, he said.
First, he said the district is in the process of revamping an evening diploma program for students who cannot attend daytime classes.
Second, the Green and White program is expanding from ninth grade to 10th grade as students move forward with their education. The program is designed for students who benefit from smaller classroom environments, Piwowar said.
When the new high school opens, eighth-graders will join ninth through 12th grade in the building.
“Bringing grade eight into the high school is really designed to help support that critical transition,” Piwowar said.
In addition to state provided data, the district tracks its own information on at-risk students, Piwowar said.
“We look at trends over time, but ultimately we want to support each and every student,” he said.
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