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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — About 11 percent of New Mexico's high schools accounted for half of the students who dropped out in 2013, according to a legislative audit released Thursday.
The report by the Legislative Finance Committee recommended that the state better target its dropout-prevention efforts, focusing on schools with the worst problems and directing money at programs with a proven track record of success.
Auditors said 4.7 percent of students statewide dropped out in the 2013 budget year, up from 3.6 percent in 2008. Nearly 7,200 out of 152,000 students in grades seven to 12 dropped out in 2013.
Slightly more than two-thirds of dropouts were concentrated in 10 school districts and state-approved charter schools. About 25 of the state's 230 high schools accounted for 52 percent of the dropouts.
Of those 25 schools, almost half of them are in Albuquerque and include some charter schools. The other schools are in Las Cruces, Roswell, Bernalillo, Hobbs, Deming, Belen, Carlsbad, Espanola, Clovis and Gallup.
Increasing the number of students who graduate by 2,600 a year would provide a $700 million benefit to taxpayers and the students over their lifetimes, auditors said. Those benefits include higher earnings and a reduction in crime.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and vice chairman of the legislative committee, expressed frustration about a lack of progress during the years at addressing dropouts and other school problems.
"We're still putting money down a rat hole right here that keeps leaking and leaking and leaking — and yet there's a cry, 'Give us more money so we can do more of the same,' " Smith said. "I appreciate the innovation that is taking place in some school districts. But I despise the lack of innovation or the willingness to try something different in other school districts."
The state plans to spend about $2.7 billion on public schools this year, which accounts for the largest share of the state budget.
Auditors made several recommendations, including revamping the formula for distributing state aid to provide incentives to school districts to increase the number of students who graduate.
Public Education Deputy Secretary Leighann Lenti said the state's graduation rate has improved, but "there is still work to be done." About 70 percent of the class of 2013 graduated after four years.
The department is preparing to implement an "early warning system" to provide schools with data about their students at risk of dropping out, Lenti said.
More than half of students drop out as freshmen or sophomores in high school, according to the audit.
"We know that when a student has a pattern of being chronically absent in middle school and failing core courses that's going to put them at greater risk for dropping out. So it's prudent to identify those students early and help our districts support them better," Lenti said.
The largest number of dropouts was at Gordon Bernell Charter School in Albuquerque. It serves adults who are inmates at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center or have been recently released.
Greta Roskom, the school's director, told lawmakers that all of the students are former dropouts and on average had been out of school for 14 years. Students are enrolled every week.
"We look at other factors besides graduation to measure our success," said Roskom, pointing to efforts to help inmates pass courses and get high school credit.
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