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Pennsylvania's public school districts under financial recovery have all seen drastic drops in graduation rates despite facing potential state takeovers. Experts say it's bizarre, and they can't pinpoint a cause.

A York Dispatch analysis of three school districts that have been under financial recovery since 2012 — York City, Harrisburg and Chester-Upland — found every district, each in different years, saw double-digit drops in graduation rates.

Duquesne City School District, which also was put under financial recovery in 2012, was not included in the study because it doesn't have a high school.

The districts have some things in common: They are larger school districts with racially diverse populations. Paired with high poverty rates, education experts would expect low graduation rates in the three districts.

But the sudden drops in graduation rates after being placed in recovery can't be explained.

"The fluctuation is perplexing, especially the declines," said Ed Fuller, an associate professor in Penn State University's Educational Leadership Program. "The random years make it more perplexing. That's just bizarre."

Financial recovery status dates back to 2012, when the General Assembly passed legislation to amend the state's Public School Code to implement a support system for school districts struggling financially. By law, if progress isn't made, the state can take over the districts.

For comparison, The York Dispatch looked at the graduation rate of all 500 public school districts in the state. Only eight saw double-digit drops in graduation rates between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, when York City saw its largest decline.

York City, unlike the other two districts in recovery, had significant drops in consecutive years. Between the 2013-14 school year and 2014-15 school year, the graduation rate dropped from 81.4% to 72.9%. The rate again dropped from 72.9% to 59.1% between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

The most recent data available from the state Department of Education is from the 2017-18 school year. York City's graduation rate during that school year was 58.8%, making it the second-lowest four-year graduation rate among the state's 500 districts.

Harrisburg also had two significant drops in its graduation rate, but they came four years apart. Between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, the rate dropped from 51.2% to 38.6%. Then, between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, it dropped from 68.9% to 58.5% after seemingly rebounding. Earlier this year, the state took control of the Harrisburg district. 

Chester-Upland was an outlier in two ways. There was only one drop, but it was so significant that the Department of Education is now investigating as to whether there was an error in the data, officials told The York Dispatch.

That's because between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, the school's graduation rate dropped from 58.2% to 35.5%, by far the largest decrease among the school districts.

Officials from the Department of Education also acknowledged the random drops in graduation rates as unusual but referred The York Dispatch to the school districts to get more details.

However, repeated calls to districts and requests for explanations were either unanswered or lacked specific details. 

York City School District officials have previously said that as test score expectations increase, students trying to meet the new requirements are having a more difficult time graduating.

But that doesn't explain why the school district's graduation rate was making positive gains before the back-to-back drops followed by a period of relative stability.

When pressed for elaboration, school district spokeswoman ShaiQuana Mitchell did not address inquiries and instead asserted the school is focusing on continuing its progress. 

Mitchell would not schedule an interview with Superintendent Andrea Berry, claiming she was unavailable. Direct attempts to contact Berry were unanswered.

Margie Orr, president of the school board, said several factors contribute to graduation rates — none of which was the district's fault — but asserted she could not give a definitive answer as to why there were struggles specifically between 2013 and 2016.

"It's parents not helping their children, it's moving out of work and funding is a problem," Orr said. "They just don't seem to want to graduate. We offer them a lot. They can't put it on our high school because it's one of the best around."

Harrisburg School District and Chester-Upland School District did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Multiple members in both the state House and state Senate who voted for the 2012 financial recovery legislation also did not respond to inquiries for comment.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD

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