Why are some high schools that receive ninth-grade students three to four grades below grade level known as “dropout factories” while others who receive most of their students at grade level are known as the best high schools? I think it is time for an honest conversation about the challenges public schools face every day, specifically, high schools.

Matthew Tully has written extensively about Manual High School, a school on the state’s “takeover” list. Is Manual a dropout factory? According to state records, most students entering Manual are not at grade level, as evidenced by their inability to pass either the graduation exams or end-of-course assessments their first time. Is that Manual’s fault? Did Manual serve these students prior to their arrival? Of course not. The elementary and middle schools created the problem for Manual. But Manual is called a failure.

Instead of placing blame on Manual, why not point to the need for improvement at the lower grade levels? The state’s push for reading proficiency at third grade is a good start, but is it enough?

In “Waiting for Superman” Jeff Canada talks about the problem starting in the fourth or fifth grade. Students who once earned A’s and B’s find themselves getting C’s and D’s in sixth and seventh grades. Indeed, if you look at Indiana Department of Education test data, you will see this trend in Indiana, too. These students, Canada says, begin to see a dead end and give up. Why do we push students on to high school when we know they aren’t ready and the downward trend will continue? So we can blame the high schools? Shut them down and then do a “turnaround”? If we don’t address elementary and middle school failure, turnaround high schools will be in business for a long time. In fact, it isn’t really a “turnaround” high school but rather a “second-chance elementary/middle school.”

So let’s look at potential answers. Is the answer for Manual to simply focus more on remediation? Or is it time for Manual to throw out its model — like other schools have done in Indianapolis — and perhaps simply provide only Advanced Placement classes and require all students to take Latin? Since we have a system of school choice now, perhaps students who can do AP and Latin will choose to attend Manual and those who can’t won’t. I’m sure the test scores at Manual would improve considerably. But if you want to focus on the student, clearly that isn’t the answer.

Students who are three to four grades behind at ninth grade can’t do AP classes nor do they want to have anything to do with Latin. They need remediation. So, yes, remediate now. But dig deeper at the elementary and middle school levels to make sure that the need for remediation declines over time. It may start out high right now, but it should taper off in coming years as improvements are and should be made at the elementary and middle school levels.

The state could help students at Manual and other schools like Manual by not putting so much emphasis on the four-year graduation rate, too. When high schools get students at ninth grade who are two to three years behind, it is nearly impossible to get them to graduate within four years. And why should they? Pushing at-risk kids through in four years forces schools to cut corners. Schools start using gimmicks such as “credit recovery” courses (where students in a matter of weeks get full credits for courses that usually take a semester), or using graduation waivers to push kids through “on time.” Why? Are we here to make sure the data make a school look good, or are we here to serve the student and make sure she learns?

Traditional grade-level students entering high school are supposed to take four years to graduate. Why do we expect students who are below grade level, most of whom come from tough backgrounds, to graduate in the same amount of time with the same amount of knowledge? Why not give them five or even six years to complete their high school career and celebrate the success of both school and student? To be sure, the state does allow this, but it doesn’t really talk about a school’s fifth- and sixth-year graduation rate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an apologist for failing public schools. I’m a realist who believes we need to focus our attention on students in elementary and middle schools to make sure that when students arrive at the high school of their choice that they do so ready and able to learn 9th grade material, not be remediated.

By Kevin Teasley, published by the Indianapolis Star