How To Tackle a Dropout Crisis Head On

High school graduation rates are not as sunny as they seem ...

a #BlackEdChat Feature | by Christina Laster

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In recent years, conventional wisdom has encouraged a broader mood of calm surrounding American high school graduation rates. Nationally, that rate stands at about 85 percent. With those rates on a steady increase, especially compared to a point where it was below 80 percent just 10 years ago, the alarm from a decade ago has gradually subsided. 

Yet, those rates still belie a hidden education crisis happening in plain sight: a combined American high school drop-out and late completion rate of 15 percent. This becomes much more obvious, and alarming, in our nation's big cities. Take Philadelphia, for example: In 2017, just 67 percent of Philadelphia school district students completed their diploma within four years - a rate way below the national average, clearly. That's also far behind peer cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  That suggests more than a quarter of Philadelphia students are neither completing their four years of high school on time or they're dropping out; nearly 6 percent did not finish 9th grade.

Indeed, Philadelphia public school students are among the most "mobile" - according to the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium - with more than a quarter experiencing "mobility includ[ing] students who: (1) changed schools across academic years; (2) changed school districts within an academic year; (3) exited public education in Pennsylvania, or (4) dropped out of high school." The more mobile a student, or the more they change schools, the more likely they don't finish on time or dropout. District-wide, the study found dropout rates as high as 7 percent, and they are astronomically high among Black students (at 57 percent of dropouts) and Latino students (27 percent).

Or take Buffalo, New York: there, graduation rates rose to 63 percent in 2017 (way up from a devastating low of 49 percent in 2012), the current dropout rate for the city is 20 percent, according to New York State education data – that’s quadruple the official federal dropout rate of 5.4 percent.

In Indianapolis, Indiana - a Midwest example - graduations rose to 84 percent in 2017 (way up from a devastating low of 47 percent just a decade prior), but 5 percent didn't finish 9th grade. It also means the current combined dropout and late graduation rate for the city is 16 percent – that’s a percentage point higher than the national dropout and late completion rate and much higher than the official federal dropout rate of 5.4 percent. The state of Indiana's overall dropout rate is 7 percent, with Black students suffering the highest of those rates at 8.2 percent, according to statewide and federal data.

Whether it’s in Philadelphia, Buffalo, Indiana or nationwide, the dropout and late completion crisis remains unresolved.  That’s deeply troubling: The cascading challenges resulting from dropout and failing on-time completion rates force affected young people into a life of crushed mobility, and it places incalculable social and economic burdens on society at large. That 1.2 million students per year are dropping out of high school is no small number. It also aggravates the United States’ ranking among developed countries, further pulling it to the bottom of advanced economies in terms of overall graduation rates.

Federal data, currently putting the national dropout rate at 6 percent, still fails to fully grasp the problem.  Nearly a quarter of high school freshman aren’t graduating on time and rates of institutionalization and incarceration for Black and Latino students – a “school-to-prison” pipeline variable that’s not factored in national statistics – are a persistent challenge showing few signs of slowing down.

Hence, October becomes a key month in the struggle to stay in school (one reason behind October as National Dropout Prevention Month). After a month or more of first year, first semester course work, many high school students find they are either too far behind or have little hope of graduating on time with their classmates. Most school districts have not yet figured out a solution.

One particular model that’s shown tremendous success in this area is the California-based Learn4Life, a vast network of free public schools with nearly 50,000 students. The schools have mastered a personalized learning approach designed to help vulnerable teenagers (otherwise known as “opportunity youth”) and young adults earn a high school diploma as they also acquire critical job skills training.  During October, as many teens tragically consider dropping out, this network deploys an ambitious “Back-in-School” strategy which includes numerous reconnection events throughout California. These events catch many struggling teens stuck at the proverbial crossroad of continued enrollment and a life tragically altered from dropping out.

The Back-In-School model provides students an opportunity to explore alternatives outside of the traditional high school environment, thereby inspiring them to try again. Since Learn4Life is built on personalized learning and one-on-one instruction, it often becomes a last hope for teens who need more attention and a program fitting both student learning style and their unique socio-economic circumstances. The differentiator is in the flexible schedule: it becomes ideal for students who are faced with adult responsibilities beyond their control - like caring for a baby or siblings, or needing to work. As an extension of school districts, Learn4Life can also identify students who are 18 to 24 years old and have “aged out” of the traditional 9th-12th grade model. Workforce innovation partnerships offer job skills training that’s absolutely crucial: nationally, high school dropouts are effectively ineligible for 90 percent of jobs in the labor market.

Students can be enrolled anytime throughout the year. There are no cutoff dates or an anxious wait for the new semester or school year to begin. Teachers and counselors assess each student, individually, to determine what made them disconnected from school in the first place. Once that’s established, a personalized program is developed to include a flexible coursework schedule and trauma-informed practices.

A high school graduation rate that fails to reach 100 percent of all students is still a national crisis. Dropping out shouldn’t be an option – and a personalized approach model like the one described above should be a normal feature in struggling traditional public school systems.  Yet, if the current crisis continues, that will mean 1.2 million Americans a year can’t apply to most jobs, more than 30 percent are trapped in poverty and 40 percent of female dropouts give birth during their teenage years. The latter triggers a vicious cycle of generational dropouts.  Beyond the impact on the students themselves, the average taxpayer absorbs $292,000 in increased domestic costs over the lifetime of each dropout.  These costs mount over time, putting an enormous strain on state, local and federal budgets while gradually destabilizing many communities.  The personalized model similar to what's happening in California successfully on a massive scale (along with a concerted Back-in-School system) is not only a smart strategy, but it’s also an effective community revitalization tool. A city like Philadelphia could use a model like that. Increasing graduation rates is not just something we must do to enhance the quality of life for a struggling teen, but it’s something we must act on immediately to reduce the devastating impacts of dropping out on our larger society. No young person should suffer through that and no community should have to pay for it, either.


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