• School districts in Missouri step up efforts to track last year's graduates

    By Jessica Bock jbock@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8228

    January 27, 2014

    2013 graduates of public high schools in Missouri: Your alma mater wants to hear from you.

    That email or voice message has been sitting there for weeks now.

    Sent from counselors or administrators, the message doesn’t ask for much. In some cases, just a click of one button.

    Of course they want to know that you’re doing well and moving along just fine in your life after high school. That’s wonderful. But they really need to know a few specifics, if you don’t mind, about where exactly your high school diploma has taken you months after you graduated. College? Technical school? The military?

    Tracking down graduates to find this information has become more important to schools in recent years. That’s because Missouri’s rating system for public schools requires districts to find out and verify where their graduates are six months after they leave high school.

    And for large districts, it’s no easy task. Sometimes, it involves a little bit of detective work.

    Following up with graduates is not new. Schools like to get in touch with their alumni to get feedback and find out whether they felt high school prepared them for the real world. They want to know ways they could improve.

    But the follow-up has more urgency these days, given that the information is factored into scores for the Missouri School Improvement Program, an annual scorecard for school districts. Those scores as a whole are ultimately used to determine a district’s accreditation.

    In the new version of the rating system, scores are broken down to each school, showing how close each individual building in a district gets to the 90 percent goal set by the state for graduate placements, heightening the level of scrutiny. The state allows for a margin of error in that information, but asks that districts verify that information after graduation to get the most accurate data possible.

    “Tracking down grads is a challenge,” said Jeff Puls, an administrator in Rockwood, a district that graduates about 1,800 seniors every year. “We try to do as much as we can to be ready.”

    Just before graduation, Rockwood and other districts have started asking seniors to submit a phone number and email address to reach them for follow-up. Starting in the fall, administrators send out the follow-up surveys, asking students to tell them where they are — a four-year college or university, a two-year training program, the military or a job.

    Some, such as Parkway and Ritenour, offer to throw names into a raffle for a prize just for completing the survey. Ritenour offered a $100 Best Buy gift card this year, and Parkway offered an iPad. Districts are in the process of compiling information now before it is due to the state next month.

    Some students don’t mind being pestered. Kathryn Teoli, a 2013 Ritenour High graduate, said her survey took only a few minutes to fill out. Now studying graphic design at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., she wanted to let the school know how well she felt prepared for college.

    “It’s was pretty simple — here’s what I’m doing, thank you so much,” Teoli said. “They’ve done so much for over the last 13 years, I figured it was the least I could do.”

    State education officials give schools “credit” for grads who are in post-secondary education, post-secondary training or the military or who complete a state-approved career education program and are placed in an occupation directly related to their training. Some would like to see that the scorecard go even further, using information about how many of a school’s students take remedial courses in college, but it’s not included in the latest ratings system.

    As a starting point, the state provides districts with information from the National Student Clearinghouse, a list of students at universities across the country. But the list doesn’t include all schools. So to be as accurate as possible, the state sends out surveys, postcards, emails, texts and voice messages this time of year trying to confirm a graduate’s current status.

    Even the raffle prize incentive for Parkway grads hasn’t significantly boosted the number of replies.

    “The response typically is pretty pathetic,” said Nathan Tyson, director of data management and research for Parkway. The district had nearly 1,500 graduates in 2013. “I think they just see it as another survey they don’t necessarily have the time for.”

    The state allows for a margin of error in a district’s post-graduate data, up to about 25 percent.

    “We know it’s difficult,” said Dennis Cooper, an assistant commissioner of education for the state. “Especially in our urban areas, because of mobility issues, we’re told continuously, ‘We can’t find these people.’”

    St. Louis Public Schools enlists the help of one employee they refer to as “the tracker.” Charlie Bean tracks down students who have dropped out of school, but it has now become part of his job to help find those people who graduated the previous year and see what they’re up to.

    Bean uses Facebook to get in touch with a student or his or her friends, and try to get a contact number to find out whether the student is in college or one of the other categories. Success often depends on the school and the neighborhood, he said.

    “I try to use every source I could to connect with the kid,” Bean said. “I’m on the street, I’m on Facebook. I’m basically putting out an APB.”