Persuading a young man or woman not to leave high school before graduation can be difficult, particularly in Odessa where the Ector County Independent School District loses 40 percent of its students between the ninth and 12th grades.
That rate is attributable to multiple causes, among them the lure of high-paying oilfield jobs, teenage pregnancies, homelessness and problems at home or school.
District statistics indicate that of the 2,519 students who began the ninth grade for the 2016-17 school year, 1,500 graduated last spring.
The Texas Education Agency says ECISD’s graduation rate for a four-year period in 2017-18 was 84.3 percent. The state rate was 89.7 percent.
ECISD Lead Social Worker Scott Randolph said the state lists the four-year graduation rate for Permian High School in 2017-18 at 92.2 percent. Odessa High’s rate was 76.8 percent.
Leading a staff of eight, Randolph said some who didn’t walk the commencement stage had moved away while others were homeschooled and a few had died; but the majority were dropouts.
He said the district does try to find students who have dropped out by calling and mailing letters. Case workers will conduct home visits to try and find them. Teachers, coaches and administrators also help out.
“It’s a big problem and many factors contribute to it,” Randolph said, such as a high mobility rate.
Many of those who had been held back after failing to qualify for the next higher grade were among the casualties. “A lot of times, they are older and feel out of place,” he said.
“They get behind and lose hope. They don’t feel like they need to be in school anymore.”
In a working-class family, Randolph said, a high school boy may see his father making a good living as an oilfield welder without a high school diploma and decide to follow suit.
“We try to convince them to stay, but they can get decent jobs here in the Permian Basin without a high school degree and sometimes they see the lure of working and take it,” he said.
Texas law requires students to stay in school until after they complete the school year in which they turn 19 years old, but state legislators recently lowered the penalty that parents might incur from a $500 fine to a ticket with no possible fine or jail time.
“I wish the courts had more leeway in what they could do, Randolph said. “I think it should be a little more severe than just a ticket.”
He said parents could still be incarcerated for violating a court order if the district pursued it that far, but judges are loath to send such defendants to the overcrowded county jail.
Randolph said the district’s high schools have dropout intervention specialists and numerous assistant principals who try to confront the problem by getting to know students and offering help.
He said the most effective antidotes to dropping out are sports, arts like band and choir and vocational training in ECISD’s career and technical education programs in such trades as cosmetology, nursing, food service, auto mechanics and body work, building trades, welding, culinary arts and agriculture.
The district has five high schools with about 4,000 students each at Odessa and Permian high schools, 350 at George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa and roughly 400 each at Odessa Collegiate Academy and Odessa Career & Technical Early College High School, or OCTECHS.
“Most kids do awesome and move on toward graduation with no problems, but a big percentage struggle and need extra support,” Randolph said. “If families talk to the schools and tell us what’s going on, a lot of times we can remove the barriers that are causing kids to drop out.
“Parents are super busy, hustling and bustling, and students are easily distracted. Extra-curriculars like sports, band and workforce training are the golden tickets that keep kids in school. College can tend to be over-rated.”
ECISD School Board member Doyle Woodall, who became a welder and formed his own company, H&W Fluid End Repair, after graduating from OHS, says he would have gotten a quicker start if he could have studied welding in high school.
Estimating that the district has from 1,000 to 1,200 students on the “CTE track,” Woodall said, “I’m all for anything we can do to give these kids a head start.
“We’ll add plumbing and air conditioning … this year or next year. We’re working with Odessa College and looking at how to expand the program because we have more wanting to get into it than we can accommodate. We need to make sure we have a place for every kid who wants to get into the CTE program.”
Odessa oilman Kirk Edwards, a major benefactor at UTPB, said the homeschooling system is sometimes used by parents to let their children in effect drop out. “The parents can say they are homeschooling their students and sign them out for homeschool and then it doesn’t count as dropping out,” Edwards said.
“We’re losing 10 to 15 percent at every grade level and we need to figure out how to keep these kids incentivized to stay in school and graduate. Every statistic shows that they do so much better in life by having a high school education and more so by having any type of college.”
The Permian graduate said the region has a lot at stake because it will need 50,000 skilled workers in the next 20 years.
Midland ISD Director of Accountability and School Improvement Mary Janousek said her district’s annual mid-September “Dropout Recovery Walk” has gotten good results by contacting eligible students who have failed to enroll and encouraging them to return.
“Most are surprised and happy to see us,” Janousek said.
“We got seven last year and overall since the program started in 2008 we have had close to 40 come back.”
Janousek said 8.6 percent of Midland’s ninth through 12th graders dropped out in 2016, 7.5 percent in ’17 and 6.5 percent in ’18.
Compared to the grade of 75, or “C,” given to ECISD in August by the Texas Education Agency, El Paso ISD got an 86, or “B,” and was a “recognized” district.
“EPISD’s score is the highest for urban districts that serve overwhelmingly large numbers of low-income students,” said Director of Student Retention and Truancy Mark Mendoza, adding that his district has a four-year graduation rate of 83.9 percent.
EPISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera said in a news release that his district’s focus on active learning is the key. “By concentrating on effective teaching instead of test preparation, our students are learning at higher levels and performing better,” Cabrera said.
“I commend our teachers for embracing innovation and putting our students on a path to success.”
Bob Campbell is a reporter for the Odessa American covering Religion and Lifestyle in the Permian Basin.