KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - As part of the an effort to regain its accreditation, the Kansas City school district is trying to find out what happened to all its missing students as it seeks to lower the number of them counted as dropouts.
The high number of students failing to graduate from the district gained the attention of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said in January that it is "a huge concern."
During next week's spring break, the district will ask volunteers to call and visit the homes of departed students and review enrollment and transfer data from surrounding school districts. The district is trying to track down about 1,000 students.
State figures show the district's graduation rate dropped to 50 percent in 2011, down from 65 percent the previous year after the federal government required states to calculate the figure in a new way.
In the past, states used a variety of formulas that produced starkly different results. Starting last year, most states were required to switch to a single formula that requires them to track each student individually, giving a more accurate count of how many actually finish high school. A school's graduation rate under the new formula is calculated by dividing the number of graduates in a given year by the number of students who enrolled as freshmen four years earlier. Students who transfer don't hurt a school's graduation rate, but there must be documentation.
"If you can't figure out where your students ended up, whether in another country or another district or home schooled, they count as dropouts against your data," said Andre Riley, a spokesman for the district. "And that's what this addresses."
He said improving the statistic is crucial in the district's bid to regain the accreditation it lost in January. It may not get the chance, as the Legislature is discussing a bill that would allow state education officials to step in quicker to assist failing districts. Missouri's current two-year waiting period means the state must wait until at least June 2014 before intervening in the Kansas City district.
Losing accreditation signals to parents that the schools are faltering, which might prompt them to remove students from the district. It also places the unaccredited district in danger of a state takeover.
The effort to track down students will operate from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Board of Education building.
The district has undertaken other efforts - helped by volunteer groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - to locate missing students. In 2010, the district was able to get 70 students back in school. But Riley said none of those earlier efforts are as exhaustive as this one.
"We are being crippled by not being able to identify where those students who left our district ended up," Riley said. "We have to clean up our data and do what we can to find up where our students ended up. That benefits us in so many other ways once we have that information."