Finding The Reasons Why

There are no clear cut answers as to what is driving the trend of rising dropout rates in Warren County.

When ranked amongst Pennsylvania counties, Warren has risen from a spot in the mid-teens just a few years ago to consistently rank among counties with the highest percentage of students dropping out.

The question of why this is happening is a complex one with no easily discernible answers.

“I guess maybe I would look at the social aspect, (financial) means, the academic aspect, geographic factors and loss of programming,” Gary Weber, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment with the Warren County School District said. “I didn’t look at individual students, but I think there’s a lot of similar circumstances. I think there’s a lot of the same factors you’re seeing regionally.”

According to Weber, engaged students and families tend to be more successful.

“Students having an interest in school and parent involvement,” Weber cited as factors likely to help students stay in school. “It’s very hard to line those things up.”

A tougher economy may be contributing.

In the five years between 2007 and 2012, unemployment in Warren County rose from 4.5 percent to more than 7 percent between 2007 and 2011. The poverty rate amongst children, meanwhile, rose from 20.8 to 24.2 percent in that time.

“With the economic situation we have, a lot of kids are working to help out their family,” Weber noted. “Our homelessness has risen dramatically. A lot of kids are leaving their homes. Our truancy rate is high as well.”

According to Weber, given the county’s size and rural nature, location plays a role.

“One of the difficulties we have is geography,” Weber noted “Take Eisenhower. A kid isn’t going to stay after (for extra help/academic programs), especially if he doesn’t have transportation.”

While these other factors come into play, Weber noted, tight budgets are impacting programs to aid students both through the district and in the community.

“We’re also losing money from cuts,” Weber said.

Research has shown juvenile crime rates are often tied to dropout rates, but, at least in this area, Warren County seems to be heading in opposing directions.

While dropout rates have increased, total juvenile court disposition in the county have seen a decrease of 3.1 percent between 2007 and 2011. Meanwhile, individuals involved in juvenile dispositions are a smaller percentage of the juvenile population, going from 3.3 percent of population in 2007 to 2.2 percent in 2011.

Teen pregnancy rates can help drive dropout rates, but in Warren County, fluctuating birth numbers don’t reflect the steady rise in dropouts.

“We haven’t had a huge problem with teen pregnancy here,” Weber noted. “But it does exist.”

In 2007, approximately 3.7 percent of births in Warren County were to mothers aged 18 and under. In 2008, that nearly doubled to approximately 6.4 percent but returned to 3.6 percent in 2009. In 2010, the last year for which Pennsylvania Department of Health Statistics are available, that rose to approximately 5.8 percent.

Again, the fluctuating numbers can be attributed to a small sample size in which each individual birth carries a lot of statistical weight. Births to mothers 18 and under totaled 15, 26, 14 and 22 in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, respectively.

According to Weber, stringent academic standards within the district, which enrolls the lion’s share of county students, may pushing rates higher in Warren County compared to the rest of the state.

“We have very high expectations,” Weber said. “Twenty-eight credits. If you look statewide, a lot of time’s its lower. I’m not saying we should drop our credits (requirement). We have high expectations.”

Weber noted the district is working to provide what aid they can to struggling students.

“We’re trying to provide more opportunities for blended learning,” Weber said. “What they’ve found is, if a kid can put in 24 hours online, they improve a grade level. (We’re) Offering more summer opportunities for credit recovery. There are other opportunities. The (Warren Forest) Hi-Ed Council has a great program. Our goal is to open up some opportunities for those kids on that bubble.”

However, Weber noted staff reductions in recent years have hindered the district’s efforts in providing credit recovery opportunities.

Warren isn’t alone, other counties in the region are seeing increased dropout rates as well. For instance, Erie County has risen from a ranking of 28th in the state to one of third.

“Regionally, you’re seeing a trend,” Weber said.