All three of the Montgomery County School Corporations were above average when it came to the new graduations rates released this week by the Indiana Department of Education Tuesday.

Southmont led the county schools with a graduation rate of 88.8 percent (143 students graduated) in 2005-06. North Montgomery had 123 graduates and an 82.0 graduation rate of its senior class. Crawfordsville graduated 145 students or 77.1 percent of its students. The new state average was 76 percent.

The State has changed the way schools calculate graduation rates and the schools must now include dropouts and other issues which were not included in the past. Because of the changes, the rates dropped throughout the state and now administrators are having to deal with lower numbers.

Southmont and North Montgomery were in a group of 159 schools who graduated from 80 to 89.9 percent of its students from last year. Two schools had 100 percent graduation rates, while another 42 had a rate of 90 percent or better. Ninety-eight schools (or 27.1 percent) graduated between 70 and 79.9 percent. The state had 15 of the state's school graduated less than 50 percent.

First Impressions

"Overall, we are pleased with the calculation," Dr. Bret Lewis, South Montgomery Schools superintendent, said. "The result once again is a combined effort of dedicated parents, dedicated kids, dedicated teachers and administrators. The ISTEP scores show we're on target. The graduation rates show we're on target and we keep working on achieving toward those targets."

"Given how the state now wants the graduation rate reported as a four-year completion rate and not a true graduation rate, we knew the number would go down for us and everyone else in the state," Dr. Robert Brower, North Montgomery Superintendent, said. "I have no problem with how it is reported, but most people do not understand the true meaning of this new measurement beyond making public schools look bad. There is a great article in this month's Phi Delta Kappan that addresses this reporting problem. The numbers are definitely skewed in the wrong direction. The true graduation rate for Americans is significantly higher than this four-year completion rate. That fact can be documented."

"We had the lowest (graduation rate) in the county," Crawfordsville Superintendent Kathleen Steele said. "That's a concern."

"We have great kids and great teachers," said Crawfordsville High School Principal Greg Hunt. "We are working hard."

Flawed Methodology

Does the state's new method have flaws?

Steele said that Crawfordsville has a higher student population that receives free and reduced lunches.

"(Southmont and North Montgomery) do not have some of the population that we have in Crawfordsville," said Steele. "That makes a difference. We have a wider population."

Hunt said that the students who receive free and reduced lunch are more at risk to not graduate. He said that when comparing the three schools in Montgomery County, it is worth noting that the other schools have smaller populations of students who receive free and reduced lunches.

"Our free and reduced lunch population in the Crawfordsville School System is really quite large," Hunt said.

Hunt said that when looking at students who paid for their lunches, the graduation rates are closer.

"Those students are on the same playing level," said Hunt. "It is that one category that gets us."

Lewis sees another fundamental problem.

"I don't think any system will be foolproof to determine the exact numbers," Lewis said. "If a kid left our district, but enrolled in another, they may not have requested a transcript transfer. He would show up as a dropout here."

Another area educators would like to see redefined is that of students who are still working toward their degree, whether it be through a GED program or other means.

"There are kids still for the class of 2006 working on graduating, whether short of credits or maybe a special needs student," Lewis said. "They're counted as dropouts. They're still enrolled. But because they did not graduate with their class in four years, the number counts as a dropout. I can't really agree with that concept because that kid is not a dropout. Special needs students can stay enrolled until age 21, but they're still calculated as a dropout."

"It is fair if it is reported accurately and everyone understands the measurement is just a four year completion diploma rate and not a true graduation rate for Americans most of whom get either a GED or eventually graduate with a high school diploma by age 25," Brower said.

"The greatest difference we see in the new formula is that a student earning a GED is no longer counted as "graduating," North Montgomery Assistant Superintendent Colleen Moran said. "Therefore those students are counted in the overall cohort total, but are not counted as graduated"

Possible Solutions

Area administrators said their work is cut out for them, but their school corporations will try to meet the challenges.

"Of course we would like to see 100 percent of our students passing," Moran said. "Therefore, we must continue to find ways to make school a priority for students. That means offering as many opportunities for students to be successful as possible. Whether it involves online courses, independent study, work-related courses, or any other way we can creatively meet the individual needs of students, we are committed to finding those solutions. However, we must also have the help of parents, grandparents, employers, and community members. The message must be clear to students from a very early age - learning is important. If students begin school knowing that attendance and education are important from people at home, at school, and in the workplace, we have a better chance of kids actually believing it."

For Crawfordsville, some programs to try to improve the numbers have already been put in place and have been going well already.

"We have just put into place a credit recovery program," said Steele.

Steele said that Crawfordsville has students who at the end of their freshmen year do not have enough credits to be classified as sophomores. She said that the school corporation tries to identify these students early so they can catch them before they fall even further behind. She said that students are identified as early as the first nine weeks of school.

"We try to get students at risk into the credit recovery program as early as possible," said Steele.

The school has other options as well.

"We have remediation classes for any student who does not pass ISTEP," said Steele. "We also offer summer school. There are many ways students can pick up credits if they lost credits."

"We always see room for improvement," said Steele.

Steele said that one key is to identify students so they do not drop out of school.

Hunt said that the state has made it harder for students to drop out of school. He said that students used to be able to drop out at 16 with parental consent.

Now students are only able to drop out if parents choose to home school the student, long-term illness, if the judicial system says the student does not have to attend school and if the student has to get a job to help support the family.

"That will help the graduation rates go up," said Hunt.

Reporters Rob Lee and Rick Holtz contributed to this story