SMMUSD HDQTRS — Last school year 13.5 percent of local public high school students dropped out, an increase from 8.1 percent during the previous year, according to new statistics compiled by the California Department of Education.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials blamed the steep increase on a new system for data collection, called CALPADS, which they said keeps better track of students who transfer schools and provides a more accurate account of the graduation rate than was previously available.

“Prior to better student tracking through the CALPADS system, most districts overstated graduation rates and understated dropout rates,” said Ralph Mechur, a member of the SMMUSD Board of Education.

The figures for SMMUSD showed public school students here are more likely to graduate than students elsewhere in Los Angeles County and in the state, where the dropout rates during the 2008-2009 school year were 24.3 percent and 21.7 percent, respectively.

There were also significant differences in the dropout rates for SMMUSD students of different races.

Among African-American students the dropout rate was 27.3 percent, compared with 20.4 percent among Latino students, 8.4 percent among white students and 6.7 percent among Asian students.

The dropout rate at Malibu High School was 7.6 percent last school year, up from 5.3 percent the year before. At Santa Monica High School it was 12 percent, up from 8.1 percent.

Olympic High, the district’s continuation campus, had a dropout rate of 43.9 percent, up from 37.6 percent, according to the statistics.

Maureen Bradford, the district’s director of educational services, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

School Board Member Oscar de la Torre said the dropout statistics highlight a problem that’s already a focus for district leaders.

“We know that the achievement gap persists and we need to do more to ensure that all students stay engaged through an innovative curriculum and supportive intervention programs,” he said. “We need to direct attention to where the need is greatest in order for us to improve our graduation rates overall.”

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