One Dropout In Four Is Still Too Many

Many journalists and educators live by a motto. In order to answer the questions, one must first question the answers.

So, when I read in Education Week and The Washington Post earlier this month that high school graduation rates hit 75 percent nationally, I immediately donned my cynic's hat, wondering: "Is this news really that good, or is it a warning sign that we need to start looking at how to help the 25 percent who don't graduate?"

Indeed, the glass is still one-quarter empty. And it is time to start thinking about filling it the rest of the way?

Too many American high school students are falling through the cracks -- and a large number of those falling short are minorities.

Indeed, in some of America's largest cities, the dropout rate is alarmingly high. Dropout rates are 35 percent or higher in six U.S. states -- which, quite simply, is six states too many.

The numbers paint an alarming picture.

In New York City, for instance, 46 percent of students fail to graduate. Forty-three percent of students in the District of Columbia are dropouts.

Meanwhile, Camden, New Jersey -- the city where I work -- has an alarming 51 percent dropout rate in its traditional public schools. No wonder Governor Christie felt things were so dysfunctional that he called for a state takeover of the Camden school district earlier this year.

Just one single high school dropout has the potential to cause a problem for any one of us -- directly or indirectly.

For instance, a high school dropout is statistically more likely to commit a crime.

And dropouts cost taxpayers billions to support. They are the most likely to be unemployed, more apt to need state-funded medical care and be on welfare while paying no taxes.

Think about that for a minute.

If the 46 percent of New York City public school dropouts continue to live in the city, then America's most populated region will be saddled with a large cluster of residents who have little to no ability to earn a living, own property or contribute to the tax rolls.

So... are you still celebrating the 75 percent graduation rate?

Or do you agree that our work is not finished here?

The good news: the dropout problem is solvable. For the past nine years, the public charter school I founded -- LEAP Academy University Charter School -- has taken a population of low-income minority students and guided them to a 100 percent high school graduation and college placement.

So, it IS possible to cut the number of dropouts in America. But how? And where to start fixing the broken system?

Consider this: a young boy or girl growing up in an inner city may lack a college educated role model at home.

Then, there are environmental challenges -- such as warnings from friends and neighbors that college is an unreachable goal.

My first suggestion: Keep urban teens in school longer - and teach them in smaller classes. If minority kids don't get a good education, they face the probability of lifetime poverty and dependence.

I usually cause eyebrows to raise when I tell people that most teenage girls who get pregnant do so between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., after school but before parents return home from work.

At our school, we begin classes at 8:30 a.m. and continue until 4:00 p.m. It is not rare to still see students in the building until 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. So, students arrive home at just about the same time as their working parents.

An added benefit. We felt that the student who stays in school a couple of hours longer than normal has less of a chance to be involved in the common inner-city temptations of unprotected sex, drug and alcohol use and violence.

Another tip for my colleagues in inner-city education: Keep class sizes small -- no more than 20 students or fewer. A smaller setting allows students and teachers to know each other better. School time and instruction is a priority.

Small class sizes also ensure that the kids who struggle the most have extra instruction. At the same time, we raise the bar on advanced students by challenging them to work more independently in project base learning.

Also, incent teachers to do the best job they can. We have a system of merit pay for teachers so our faculty isn't protected simply by longevity. Teachers are encouraged to teach to the student, not to a standardized test or a text book. We embrace accountability among our teachers and think other urban school districts should, too.

In addition, we provide teachers with time to meet and plan and work collaboratively. Teachers know they have an obligation not only to students but to their community to demonstrate that they are doing the job that has been entrusted to them -- to educate future citizens.

Furthermore, you must adopt the "It Takes A Village" philosophy of engaging families. Many of our students come from one-parent households, so we hold special programs to train parents on how to support their children with homework, college and career planning.

Parents are engaged in the process of learning with their kids. Extended time for parents to come to school at night to learn has been a major step toward success.

We build new buildings and maintain a culture of success with nice places to work where everyone feels valued and welcome. Poor children love the idea of coming to a school that is bright and inviting.

Finally, work with every student to develop a strategy for getting into (and paying for) college. We collaborate with Rutgers University and other colleges in a dual college access program that exposes students to college classes as early as their junior year.

Having a100 percent high school graduation rate is the goal all schools should be working toward -- even ones in the most dire urban settings. You achieve that mark by establishing an atmosphere of respect for kids and demanding in return that they do well in school.