- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas After Chad Wilkins dropped out of Flour Bluff High School in 1999, he found himself in a tight financial spot.

His full-time job as a shift manager at Taco Bell was bringing in $6.20 an hour, barely enough to make ends meet, especially since the 19-year-old had moved out of his parents' house.

When he saw an ad for a $12-an-hour job at the Corpus Christi Army Depot, he thought his financial woes were solved. That is, until he found out he didn't meet the most basic requirement a diploma or successful completion of the General Educational Development test.

"I just filled out the application anyway, hoping there would still be a chance," he said. "They never called me, and I was like, 'Oh, well, I suppose I've got to go back to school.' "

Chad had just received a crash course in the economics of dropping out of high school.

On an almost daily basis, Meg Becker of Remedy Intelligent Staffing, a Corpus Christi temp agency, sees high school dropouts looking for work.

"For someone with no diploma or GED, the opportunity for work is minimal," she said. "If they're diligent and a good worker, they might make $6.50 or $7 an hour."

According to 2000 U.S. Census Bureau data, the median income for a high school dropout is $12,478, compared with $20,889 for a high school graduate. A college degree doubles the median salary to $40,826.

Thirty years ago, a high school diploma wasn't necessarily a prerequisite for a middle-class life. With higher-paying manufacturing and factory jobs relatively plentiful, dropouts could still average $23,000 a year (in today's dollars), according to a 1996 Brown University study.

"We are no longer in an economy where you can step into the steel mill or auto plant," said John Tyler, the Brown University professor who conducted the earnings study. "Jobs today are so much more automated and they require more skills."

High school dropouts don't only hamper their own earning power. Too many high school dropouts can cripple a community economically by scaring off companies considering relocating there.

"For a number of companies, the very first thing they look at in a community is the number of high school dropouts," said Ron Kitchens, chief executive officer of the Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corp. "If you don't meet their minimum threshold, they won't look at you."

Many researchers also say earning a GED does not have the same earning power as a diploma.

Ironically, many dropouts are forced into a lifetime of weakened earning power and poverty level wages in an attempt to escape those same economic pressures.

"A lot of 16- and 17-year-olds feel the need to help out their families," said Clenton LaGrone, an attendance officer at Alice High School. "They're working at night and they're too tired to go to school."

While 12 percent of the state's 1997 dropouts said they were leaving to get a job, according to a Texas Education Agency survey, 45 percent left because of "poor attendance," a vague reason that offers little clue as to what motivates students. Many educators on the front lines say economic factors have more bearing than the state-sponsored survey lets on.

"Sixty-nine percent of our students work. Many live on their own," said Ricardo Almendarez, principal of Corpus Christi's Alternative High School.

And that struggle is often passed on to new generations as dropouts find themselves in the same economic quandary as their parents.

"We'd like to break out of it," Mr. LaGrone said. "But it takes a generation of not doing it to get it started. We need to get that first kid in."

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