ACLU Sues Palm Beach County School District Over Poor Graduation Rates

Don Jordan and Christine Denardom, Palm Beach Post, March 18, 2008

Low graduation rates in Palm Beach County show the school district has failed its students, especially minority children, by not providing a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality education,” according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The lawsuit addresses a topic never before challenged in the courts. The ACLU and other organizations have sued school districts for not distributing resources equally, but no group has pursued legal action for dismal graduation rates.

“We’re really making a more basic point,” said Chris Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “Graduating from high school is virtually the minimum requirement for success. A large percentage of the students are being essentially written off.”

The suit alleges that the district is violating students’ rights to a high-quality education as outlined in the state constitution.

According to state calculations, 71.8 percent of students across the county graduated on time last school year, up from 66 percent in 2003 but slightly below the state average.

The rate is higher than five of the other six largest “urban” school districts in the state, including Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Only Hillsborough County, at 79.1 percent, had a higher rate.

But the graduation rates drop off among the county’s black and Hispanic students. While more than 80 percent of white students graduated on time in the county last year, only about 55 percent of black students and 64 percent of Hispanic kids did, according to state statistics.

The percentages may actually be slightly higher. School district officials initially submitted incorrect student information to the state, but the error has since been corrected. The district’s total graduation rate increased from 71.4 percent to 71.8 percent in the correction, but the rates among particular races were not available Tuesday.

The three high schools with the highest percentage of black students—Palm Beach Lakes, Glades Central and Boynton Beach—also had the three lowest graduation rates in the county last year.

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The suit calls for the school district to improve the graduation rates among students in every racial group, students who qualify for the school lunch program and English-language learners. It also calls for the school district to adopt a more-accurate method for calculating graduation rates.

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