Dr. Bob Sanborn is the president and CEO of Children at Risk. A tall genial-looking man, he's addressing a crowd of about 50 child advocates.
"You can see that according to the TEA our dropout rate is actually going down and we have about a four percent dropout rate. But I challenge anyone, and some of you who work in the schools, to go into any high school here and say how many freshmen do you have and how many seniors do you have and you see a huge difference."
In fact, that difference is staggering, according to numbers presented by Children at Risk. The Texas Education Agency reports a local high school dropout rate of 3.8 percent for Harris County. Sanborn says their studies show it's closer to 40 percent.
"Many other people are doing research on dropouts and they're finding about a 40 to 50 percent dropout rate in the state of Texas. The numbers I think are that the state of Texas will look at certain numbers and they will sort of not count them if you will, or there are error numbers. And so there are a lot of kids that are going by the wayside that are not being counted that we are counting."
On the surface, it sounds daunting. Nearly half of HISD students aren't graduating?
"It's not as simplistic as a lot of the groups would like it to be."
That's Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. Fallon is known for her sharp criticism of HISD, but she says the real number of dropouts probably falls somewhere in between the two estimates.
"Probably the closest you can come is what came in in eighth grade and what is consistently coming out the other end. And that can put you in the 30 percentage range."
And even that number is nearly impossible to quantify. Karen Dvorak is the director of the Accountability Research Division at the TEA. She says districts have a real challenge with determining who the true dropouts are.
"The data that we receive and that we do look at, we do see students moving around quite a bit. They will come in and out of campuses, in and out of districts, in and out of Texas public schools. And tracking a student over four or five years is very difficult."
HISD has implemented an aggressive dropout recovery campaign to get kids back in school. Those efforts are paying off, but the dropout rate is still static -- at least for now. Fallon says the accountability system could always use more transparency and better reporting methodology, but she notes the issue is so complex it's hard to know where to even begin making changes. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.