(Fred Lynch) [Order this photo]
There they are, in black and orange, smiles on their faces. Their eyes seem to look beyond the camera lens for what comes next. They made it, and they'll always be in those graduating class photos hanging in the hallways of Cape Girardeau Central High School. Some might be the "lucky ones," who just scraped by, making it to class just enough days, or scoring just high enough on the final. But they count toward reaching 67.5 percent, that just-not-good-enough number so many others want to see change.
The four-year graduation rate of the Cape Girardeau School District in 2011 wasn't good enough to best the rates of other Southeast Missouri districts of similar size, like Poplar Bluff and Sikeston, even though both have student populations with higher rates of poverty. Students' issues linked to poverty are considered the foremost reason for dropping out of school. Even in the Charleston School District in Mississippi County, ranked 29th out of 114 counties in the state for highest crime index in 2010, and where the percentage of students living in poverty is twice that of Cape Girardeau, more students are graduating.
"It's hard to put your thumb on any one thing," said James Johnson, chief deputy juvenile officer for Missouri's 32nd Judicial Circuit.
Johnson began heading an alternative classroom for suspended students at the former juvenile detention center in Cape Girardeau in October. About 90 percent of the students who attend are Cape Girardeau School District students. More than 170 students worked with district teachers in a classroom supervised by juvenile officers during the last school year, Johnson said. Some were there more than once.
Often the suspended students come from low-income, single-parent households, and juvenile officers are already familiar with them. The officers have been to those households, knocking on the door, trying to find out why the student isn't at school. Once the students are in the alternative classroom, problems that cause students to get in trouble are identified and dealt with when possible, Johnson said. Students don't miss homework during suspension with the classroom alternative in place, and Johnson hopes that could improve the district's graduation rate.
Johnson and other juvenile officers aren't the only ones chasing down students to find out why they aren't in school, in Cape Girardeau or elsewhere.
A parent liaison to fight the dropout problem is something the United Way of Southeast Missouri's executive director, Nancy Jernigan, believes may help Cape Girardeau's graduation rate.
This was the first year the high school had its own liaison; the previous year, it shared one with the junior high.
Jernigan said the liaison, who visits homes and is a social worker who can guide families through issues like a lack of transportation and finances, helped around 20 students find their way back into Central High School in the last school year.
But simply finding students is always going to be a problem for the district, according to Central's principal of 11 years, Mike Cowan. He's been at the helm at the high school while the district's percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch has risen steadily to an all-time high of 61.5 percent in the 2011-2012 school year.
Family financial troubles show up at the high school in the form of constant student mobility, Cowan said, and most of the time, the high school's staff can't keep up, nor do they get the chance. In the last school year, 327 students enrolled late, transferred to another district or dropped out. That number is equivalent to an entire grade level at the high school. Many who enroll late are also already academically behind, Cowan said. Ones who leave are often never heard from again and are counted as dropouts unless documented as enrolling in another district.
Cowan said he believes Cape Girardeau seems to attract a transient community because jobs and low-priced housing are thought by many to be most available in the region's largest city. But many who move to the area find they can't make it work here, either, he said.
Poplar Bluff school officials have cracked down hard in recent years to get truant students back in class and dropouts to return for a regular diploma or GED. Alternative school setups are also working in Sikeston and Charleston, administrators and teachers in both districts say.
Lisa Harris, Charleston High School's counselor, has seen 24 years' worth of graduating classes during her time there. Having a smaller student population might make keeping students from dropping out a little easier than in Cape Girardeau, she said.
"Everyone knows everyone," Harris said. "I usually know right away when there is a problem that could cause one to drop out."
Harris deals with students often who have a family member or friends in prison and said she "gets honest with them real quick about where they could end up."
"We tell them they can end the cycle," she said.
A Cape Girardeau senior who missed graduating in May for lacking credits after she dropped out and is now in summer school said the high school's counseling staff and teachers are attentive to students' needs. There was nothing the staff could have done to alter her decisions about school, although they did try, she said.
Chelsea Roberts, 17, dropped out in February after only attending Central since the beginning of the year. She had been kicked out of her house and was living with friends and working while trying to stay in school, she said. Working 30 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant wasn't helping her enough, so she dropped out of school to work more, she said. A counselor told her to think hard about that decision and offered to rearrange her class schedule, she said. She was also made aware of all options she had to return to school and graduate, like attend the district's alternative school.
Cape Girardeau's Alternative Education Center offers a credit recovery program. The high school will add an after-school option next year as well.
Other districts producing better graduation rates also offer credit recovery programs. Charleston's has helped most students who get behind and miss credits needed for graduation to catch up, Harris said.
1000 S. Silver Springs Road, Cape Girardeau, MO