FORT WORTH -- A disagreement between mayoral candidate Cathy Hirt and Fort Worth school district officials escalated Friday when her campaign introduced data that it said supports her assertion that nearly half of the district's freshmen don't graduate from the district.
A study conducted by the America's Promise Alliance computed a graduation rate of 56.5 percent for Fort Worth's class of 2005. As for the class of 2009, state data indicate the loss of 46 percent of its members between ninth grade and graduation, officials from Hirt's campaign said.
School officials insist that those numbers are wrong. This week, Superintendent Melody Johnson took public exception to a statement in one of Hirt's campaign fliers that "47 percent of freshmen in the Fort Worth ISD never go on to earn their high school diploma."
In a news release Friday, Hirt's campaign said: "Sadly, some school district leaders are supporting the status quo and misleading voters while casting blame on anyone willing to engage in an honest debate on the severity of the problem. Cathy Hirt welcomes open discussion and has offered to talk with the [school district] to find real solutions to this important challenge."
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Hirt, who has a doctorate in educational public policy, has said that as mayor, she would bolster relations with the district to improve education.
Johnson expressed frustration that "erroneous and very bad information" was still being used.
"I want out of the middle of this political arena," Johnson said. "The school system has our hands full with our day-to-day agenda that we need to accomplish for kids. We welcome every member of the community -- politicians or otherwise -- to roll up their sleeves and help us.
"I'm baffled as to how we've become the center when there are so many issues in the city."
Causes not factored in
Hirt has said throughout the campaign that 47 percent of freshmen do not graduate, but she modified that stance this week when district officials introduced the most current data available from the Texas Education Agency. The data show that the graduation rate for the class of 2009 was actually 76.4 percent.
On Friday, Hirt's campaign asserted that the data show that students are at least leaving the school district. The campaign cited TEA data showing that the district had 6,584 freshmen in 2005-06 but that only 3,568 graduated in 2009.
Her campaign also referred to the America's Promise Alliance report, which was partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The report calculated the numbers of students promoted to each grade from ninth to 12th from fall 2004 to fall 2005 and factored in the number of diplomas awarded in spring 2005.
Counting freshmen and graduates does not take into account many factors, said Linda Roska, director of TEA's accountability research.
For example, high schools across the nation have what experts call the "ninth-grade bulge," which means that the grade level is much larger than others because a number of students don't earn enough credits to be classified as a sophomore. Officials said such students would be counted as freshmen twice, but their graduation or dropout status would be accounted for in their original class.
"Just using the count is not looking at individual students, so it's an estimate," Roska said. "That would count early graduates as dropouts or kids who are still in school or who moved away as dropouts.
"That's a less accurate way of measuring what's actually happening, especially when we can track individual kids."
TEA reports a 17.2 percent dropout rate for Fort Worth's class of 2009.
Johnson noted that the America's Promise Alliance report is based on older data and looked at estimates rather than tracking actual students, which districts are required to do.
John Henry, 817-390-7539
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700