Principal Fortunato and the mysterious dropout rate

I first met Debbie Fortunato after I had retired. I volunteered as a panelist reviewing an oral presentation of an educational doctoral dissertation by a State University of New York at Albany graduate student. Debbie was a member of the audience for the presentation and a doctoral student herself. When she found out who I was she approached me during a break in the action with a request to meet and discuss her career options?” As with Tom Gavin, I agreed.

We met at a local Starbuck’s where she gave me an hour-long earful on life and on education. She seemed to have what it takes to be a great principal and eventually an outstanding superintendent.

When Debbie Fortunato was hired as principal of Rosemont High School, Tom Galvin’s school district, a few of the teachers on one of the interview committees and some of the school board members who interviewed principal candidates made it clear they thought Rosemont High School needed an academic shot in the arm. The curriculum, schedule and teaching methods were essentially the same as they had been 30 years earlier when Superintendent Galvin was a social studies teacher. Hiring from outside was rare for this district, but the previous principal had retired suddenly because of a health problem and no one had been groomed for succession.

In her interviews, none of the interview team members mentioned test data, but Debbie had done her homework and she knew the test scores were weaker than she would have action with a request to meet and discuss her career options?” As with Tom Gavin, I agreed.

We met at a local Starbuck’s where she gave me an hour-long earful on life and on education. She seemed to have what it takes to be a great principal and eventually an outstanding superintendent.

When Debbie Fortunato was hired as principal of Rosemont High School, Tom Galvin’s school district, a few of the teachers on one of the interview committees and some of the school board members who interviewed principal candidates made it clear they thought Rosemont High School needed an academic shot in the arm. The curriculum, schedule and teaching methods were essentially the same as they had been 30 years earlier when Superintendent Galvin was a social studies teacher. Hiring from outside was rare for this district, but the previous principal had retired suddenly because of a health problem and no one had been groomed for succession.

In her interviews, none of the interview team members mentioned test data, but Debbie had done her homework and she knew the test scores were weaker than she would have anticipated for this mostly high rent suburban district. Also, fewer Rosemont students took AP tests than she would be expected given the district’s demographic data.

Furthermore, more Rosemont students failed required end-of-course Regents exams and fewer Rosemont students scored at high levels on these tests, as compared to similar districts. Also, fewer Rosemont students went on from high school to competitive colleges, SAT scores were lower than a trained observer would have expected and the number of graduates didn’t match up with the number of dropouts listed. Either some students were missing in action or the dropout rate was worse than reported.

In Debbie’s interview, Tom Galvin made it clear he thought academic improvement was important, but he also thought the crux of the problem was poor public relations. The district needed to polish its image.

After she was hired, Debbie analyzed the academic performance data in depth and presented her findings to Superintendent Galvin. Her data showed that the mysterious dropout rate data issue was caused by 15 to 20 students per year who were transferred into a local GED program where they never anticipated

Furthermore, more Rosemont students failed required end-of-course Regents exams and fewer Rosemont students scored at high levels on these tests, as compared to similar districts. Also, fewer Rosemont students went on from high school to competitive colleges, SAT scores were lower than a trained observer would have expected and the number of graduates didn’t match up with the number of dropouts listed. Either some students were missing in action or the dropout rate was worse than reported.

In Debbie’s interview, Tom Galvin made it clear he thought academic improvement was important, but he also thought the crux of the problem was poor public relations. The district needed to polish its image.

After she was hired, Debbie analyzed the academic performance data in depth and presented her findings to Superintendent Galvin. Her data showed that the mysterious dropout rate data issue was caused by 15 to 20 students per year who were transferred into a local GED program where they never achieved a diploma. These “transfers” artificially kept the dropout numbers down.

“You can transfer them anywhere you want on paper but they’re still dropouts,” she said.
Meanwhile, according to the state education department, these transfers should actually be counted as dropouts. Debbie asked Tom Galvin how she should handle it, but she received more of a warning than a response.

“The school board knows about those transfers,” Galvin said. “We certainly don’t need bad public relations about more dropouts. We need to pass our budget in May and if we don’t, you’ll take the heat.”

When Debbie raised concerns about the AP program with too few students taking the challenging AP tests and Regents and SAT scores that were too low Tom Galvin said: “I’ll support any changes you need to make to improve the high school academic results as long as you can do it with the existing budget. Just let me be the one who talks to the school board about it. Don’t contact any of the board members, and if one of them calls you or emails you or tries to meet with you just tell them to contact me immediately. Understood?”