The graduation rate at Emmerich Manual High School plummeted to 57 percent last year, after a state audit found the school did not have the proper documentation for many of the students designated as leaving to home-school, according to new data obtained by Chalkbeat.
That’s down from a 78 percent graduation rate at the Indianapolis school the previous year, a rate that a Chalkbeat investigation found obscured a large number of students who left without diplomas as home-schoolers but weren’t necessarily continuing their education at home.
When students are labeled as leaving to home-school instead of listed as dropping out, they are removed from graduation calculations — a practice that can boost graduation rates. Manual had initially reported 39 students who were expected to graduate in 2019 were removed by their parents to home-school.
But the routine audit by the state determined the school did not have the correct documentation for more than a dozen of the students.
The final tally of students leaving to home-school was 26 — fewer than half the number reported in the class of 2018, when 60 students were marked as leaving to home-school.
As a result of the audit, the graduation rate fell 21 percentage points in 2019.
“It probably calls all the earlier grad rates into question,” said Russell Rumberger, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who directs the California Dropout Research Project. “If they found it in one year, why wouldn’t they find it in other years?”
In an email to Chalkbeat, an official overseeing the school, Misty Ndiritu, questioned why the state flagged so many students in its audit: “There were an inordinately large number of denials accompanied by very vague and generic reasons for denial.”
“At the surface, it certainly seems alarming to see such a drop in graduation rate, however from what we can determine, it appears that the drop is primarily due to a change in process at the Department of Education,” wrote Ndiritu, turnaround school director for Noble Education Initiative, which handles daily management at the Indiana schools.
The school missed the initial appeal window because the “audit results went into junk mail,” and the school is now reviewing whether the denials are correct, Ndiritu wrote.
Adam Baker, spokesman for the Department of Education, said in an email that “we are here to be a resource for schools and if there are any misunderstandings or if clarity is sought, we are happy to have that discussion.”
The decline in the Manual graduation rate is coming at a particularly significant moment. Manual and its sister schools, Thomas Carr Howe High School and Emma Donnan Elementary and Middle School, were former Indianapolis Public Schools taken over by the state in 2012, and have been managed for years by the Florida-based Charter Schools USA. The schools are expected to exit state oversight next year, and in order to keep control of the schools, the network must win charters.
The Indiana Charter School Board, however, rejected applications for the schools last month. And Indianapolis Public Schools is making a play to take back control of the schools, with a proposal to bring in new charter operators at Manual and Donnan and to close Howe. The State Board of Education is expected to decide on the fate of the campuses at a meeting Wednesday.
Howe’s graduation rate was 85 percent in 2019, down from 92 percent in 2018. The school’s data was not audited by the state in 2019. Howe had an uptick in the number of students labeled as leaving to home-school: There were 19 last year, up five students from the prior year. The number of dropouts also rose to three last year up from zero. Charter Schools USA did not respond to a request for comment on the Howe graduation rate.
The state began auditing graduation documentation with the class of 2017. The Indiana Department of Education typically audits over 100 high schools each year with the aim of cycling through all campuses every four years. The reviews focus on whether schools have the required records for students who are removed from the graduating class, including teens marked as leaving to home-school, transfers to other high schools, and students who are considered missing.
In total, 26 Manual students from the class of 2019 were flagged by the audit and recategorized as dropouts.
State and local authorities do audits of graduation data precisely because graduation rates “can be gamed,” said Rumberger, who described the practice of removing students who leave to home-school from graduation calculations as “kind of an accounting gimmick.”
When students are labeled as leaving to home-school, schools are required to document the withdrawal with a form from the state signed by the parent. If there are problems with the records — such as if the parent didn’t sign, the school used the wrong form, or the documents say that the student is actually seeking a high school equivalency — the student is reclassified as a drop out.
Baker, of the Department of Education, wrote that the audits typically find fewer than 1,000 students each year who are returned to the graduation calculations out of graduating classes that include over 80,000 students statewide.
“We are always working towards ensuring data is as accurate as possible and therefore we view this as a professional development opportunity for schools to learn more about [their] cohort and how the graduation rate is calculated,” Baker wrote.
A law passed last year aims to ensure that students are not inappropriately labeled as leaving to home-school. It requires high schools with large numbers of students leaving to home-school to demonstrate “good cause” to the state board before removing them from the graduation calculations.
The state, however, will not begin enforcing the law until the class of 2020, and officials are still considering how to measure whether a school has shown “good cause.” Indiana State Board of Education staff told Chalkbeat last year their intervention in schools is likely to rely on a paperwork review, similar to that used in Department of Education audits, rather than in-person interviews with students and parents.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.