Dropout Prevention Should Be Top of the Class

What would be the impact if we succeeded in lowering the dropout rate? How much better off will we all be if we succeed in our dropout prevention efforts?
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The New York City public school system is the largest urban school district in the nation. With nearly 80,000 teachers serving 1.1 million students in 1,400 schools, it is truly a dynamic setting from which meaningful lessons can be gleaned. Mayoral control of the school system has shown that dramatic improvements in teacher and student performance are possible with strong leadership, accountability and citywide standards and evaluation methods.

Still, in New York City, two out of five public high school students do not graduate. Moreover, in many low-income neighborhoods 4-year graduation rates are well below 50%. The same is true in cities across the country from Chicago to Detroit to Los Angeles. Annually, 1.2 million kids drop out of school (that is 7,000 kids every day or 1 child every 26 seconds) on a national level.

Issues like poverty, homelessness, and language barriers make it more challenging than ever for students to stay in school and get a diploma. Staying in school and graduating often takes a back seat to dealing with the challenges they face out of school and at home. As a result, many struggle with school for years, don't receive the assistance they need, and then stop going to school altogether.

What would be the impact if we succeeded in lowering the dropout rate? How much better off will we all be if we succeed in our dropout prevention efforts?

Such is the focus of a tool called the Common Good Forecaster recently developed by United Way and the American Human Development Project. The Common Good Forecaster is essentially able to forecast how things might change in a community if educational outcomes were better (It is able to forecast by every county nationwide).

According to the Common Good Forecaster, higher levels of education are linked to all levels of society: less unemployment, less poverty and higher incomes, better physical and mental health, less crime, and greater civic engagement and participation.

But most striking is the direct connection between income and poverty. Adults without a high school education are two times more likely to live in poverty than one with a high school diploma -- almost 24 percent of the adult population without a high school diploma is poor, compared to 11 percent of those who graduate from high school.

For instance in Bronx County, 32% of the 1.4 million residents currently do not have a high school diploma, and 23% live below the poverty line. According to the Common Good Forecaster, if we successfully reduced the dropout rate in the Bronx so that only 10% of the population had no high school diploma, the number of residents living below the poverty line would be reduced by 28,000 people to 19.5%.

Poverty and low levels of education also reinforce one another. National Center for Education Statistics research shows that kids from poor families are three times more likely to be out of school. In other words -- in order for us to prevent high dropout rates for future generations, we need to solve the problem of high dropout rates for the current generation.

Our only option is to attack the problem with workable programs, at scale, that keep our kids in school. I will reserve other columns to discuss ideas on how programs should be designed to address the problem at its roots, but recognizing that these students desperately need the kind of support services that teachers, alone, can't provide, is the first step. At-risk youth need professional counseling, academic support and a mentor outside of the classroom they can turn to every day. We need more after-school classes where students can earn credits toward graduation, as well as arts, athletic and cultural activities that their local schools may not be able to offer. We desperately need a strong commitment to this kind of effort in order to keep students engaged and motivated to stay in school.

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