By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Recently released numbers from Sacramento show a fourfold jump in Del Norte County's dropout rate, but local school officials said yesterday the jump is because they are tracking dropouts better now than in past years.

Numbers posted by the California Department of Education on its Web site show a 4.4 percent dropout rate for high school students in Del Norte for the 2000-01 school year. The previous year shows a 1.1 percent rate.

Doug Stark, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction with the Del Norte County Unified School District, said yesterday the problem isn't with the 2000-01 year but with the way students at Sunset High, an alternative education school for high-risk students, were tracked in prior years.

andquot;In past years, kids who turned 18 were automatically (assumed) transferred to adult education if they stopped attending school,andquot; said Stark. andquot;It was the people at Sunset that were doing that. It probably wasn't a good idea.andquot;

Sunset principal Dennis Burns, who took over the job this year and changed the tracking procedure, said the prior tracking method was lax.

andquot;If a student goes to community college, we have no way of knowing that unless their records are requested,andquot; said Burns. andquot;Otherwise we can't verify they've gone on to another school - we have no way of knowing that.andquot;

With the new procedure, adult students who stop attending are not automatically assumed to be transferred or enrolled in community college. andquot;Students leave school for several reasons; They don't want to work, they want to quit or they just stop showing up,andquot; said Burns.

Sunset High, which has the highest dropout rate in the county with about 30-percent of its students quitting school in the last eight years, jumped to 77.4 percent in 2000-01 with the adjusted tracking method.

Superintendent Frank Lynch said seeing the higher rate will take some getting used to but said he believes the numbers are more accurate

andquot;It will be startling at first when you see it, but we should see a reduction after a while,andquot; said Lynch, who said he is pleased when any of the students at the alternative school graduate.

andquot;These are students who are having difficulty at the comprehensive high school level, and that can manifest into poor grades or poor attendence,andquot; Lynch said. andquot;Our main objective is to get these kids through the courses so they can get their diplomas.andquot;

Aside from the 2000-01 year, the county has enjoyed a downward trend for dropouts overall during the past 10 years. This trend is mirrored in statewide numbers as well, where the rate has steadily declined from 5.2 percent in 1991-92 school year to 2.8 percent in the 2000-01 school year across California.