How Do We Change the Dropout Factories in America?

By now, we know why many of our kids drop out of school. Reasons ranging from family and other social challenges, poor instruction, a well-intentioned principal oblivious to student behavior problems, apathetic teachers or some who simply don't have the capacity or the interest in controlling disruptive students. On an individual basis, these factors translate to real life stories like Cristina, who I feature in my book, Voices of Determination. Cristina got pregnant, had a baby at 14-years-old and just couldn't handle being a mother and going to a traditional school. Or, Jamal, the young man I met many years ago who never learned how to read but was propped up in his various schools because he was a good athlete. Unfortunately, he got injured, had to leave his high school basketball team and eventually dropped out of school. Looking back, Jamal says, "Since I couldn't play ball and couldn't read, school wasn't any fun."

According to Education Week, nationally, about 70 percent of students in the U.S. graduate on time with a regular diploma, but for Hispanic and African-American students, the proportion rate drops to about 50 percent. And sadly, dropouts lack the academic skills needed to gain entry into high-skilled and white-and blue-collar jobs, all too often this leading many of them to a life of poverty, prison, and homelessness.

Nearly 2,000 high schools have been dubbed dropout factories because over 1/2 of America's drop outs come from those schools. And more than two million teenagers attend these schools -- where just 60 percent of the students finish high school in four years.

Not surprisingly, dropout factories are hard to turn around. The majority of their student population is faced will unique and difficult challenges far beyond just academics -- challenges like the need to work to help support the family or receive social services.

In his book Education Malpractice, Nelson Reidar shares his experience as a high school instructional coach and calls for a re-tooling of curriculum and instructional practices. He also lays out key issues that must be tackled if we are to improve these dropout factories. Issues such as: a principal who has little authority to change a school's culture because of teacher tenure laws, high suspension rates which lead to lost funding, teachers who show up but aren't dedicated to their students and overwhelmed students who not adequately prepared to do well on tests and lack of technical training are just a few.

So how do we begin to curb this dropout trend? Especially, when it is clear that we can't fix the dropout problem by using the same "reform" tactics. First, we must start to blend human services with academics while embracing innovation, creativity and an overall willingness to try something completely different. At the same time, we must insist that schools start reporting their graduation rates by racial, ethnic and other subgroups, build data systems to keep track of students throughout their school years and more accurately measure the graduation and dropout rates of their students.

Next, we must focus more on increased parental involvement for we know that when parents move from being bystanders to demanding their place as decision-makers in schools, they are more equipped to advocate for their kids. Finally, we need more quality educational options for parents and do more to celebrate the unique and diverse successful alternative programs already in existence.

To that point, there are in fact some schools that are succeeding at teaching who many consider the "unteachable." Schools like Hope Academy in Kansas City, the first dropout recovery and prevention charter school. Since its inception this school has helped more than 100 former high school dropouts graduate with a high school diploma. They have incorporated a blended learning program that helps kids learn at their own pace. Then there is Maya Angelou Charter School Network. Through their several campuses they provide small, personalized high school settings primarily to low-income students in need of extensive counseling support. With extended school hours and programs, academic support and tutoring, college preparatory support, and daily school-to-career opportunities they are effectively lowering the dropout rate.
Folks the sad reality is that we live in a country that culturally and traditionally does not value a high school education. And these dropout factories are a prime example of the inequality in our American education system. It's no secret that the highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas with most having high proportions of minority students. They are concentrated in low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods where by nature, many of the families have very limited education and the parents themselves don't place particular emphasis on the value of education or push their kids to finish their high school education. I'm certain that even the brightest and affluent kids would ultimately fail if they had to attend these schools.

It is imperative that we start treating all children the same by giving them equal opportunity to maximize their full potential. We cannot reduce poverty if we continue to relegate our kids to low expectations. If not careful, we are going to end up with a nation of kids unfit to attend high school, get into apprenticeship programs, traditional colleges, and other forms of higher education. But when all students get college preparatory learning, they get the knowledge they need to succeed and families, communities, and the nation benefits in the process. So, let's get to the business of dropping the dropout rate so that kids like Cristina and Jamal are prepared for college and can write their own stories. The fact of the matter is a high-quality education brings about self-confidence and the ability to build a stable and successful life in a world in which knowledge is power.