- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Every year, almost one-third of all public high-school students — and nearly one-half of minority students — fail to graduate from public high school with their class. Many abandon school with fewer than two years remaining toward their diplomas. These grim numbers come at a time when our nation’s economic prosperity and social mobility are high. It is time to act.

The dropout choice is a dangerous one since dropouts are much more likely than those who graduate to be unemployed, in poverty, imprisoned, unhealthy and single parents of children who drop out. Society suffers from the loss of productive workers and the increased costs of incarceration, health care and other social services. Entire communities are ravaged by generations of high-school dropouts.

Why students make this life-changing decision is complex and relates to the individuals and their respective families, schools and communities. What is clear is that dropping out is not a sudden act but a slow process of disengagement, academically and socially. And there are plenty of warning signs along the way — absenteeism, low grades, discipline problems, lack of involvement in class and school — that should set off alarm bells for schools but often go unnoticed. Some studies indicate up to 70 percent accuracy in predicting which students in elementary school will fail to graduate from high school.

Studies show that academic failure is not the primary reason students drop out. Students report having big dreams but are uninspired and not motivated to work hard. The majority report that they would have worked harder if more was demanded of them — these students did one hour or less of homework each day, and they were chronically absent with no one from their schools calling to find out why.

Many believe that students have too much freedom and need more structure to ensure that they go to school and stay in class. Still, some students have real-world pressures and leave school to make money, raise children or care for family members. A significant minority of high-school dropouts have academic challenges, but even those students show strong signs that they could be saved from the plight of the uneducated.

We found thoughtful answers from the students society has left behind. These students have ideas for what might have helped them stay in school — more challenging coursework, classes that are connected to their career aspirations, more engaging teachers, smaller classes, greater expectations, more support, more rules and discipline in school and more involved parents.

This problem is largely solvable if we summon the national will. We need accurate reporting of graduation and dropout rates at the state and federal levels; different schools and small learning communities with engaging coursework for students with different needs; regular interaction between schools and parents for students with individualized graduation plans; early-warning systems and adult advocates to provide support for kids at risk of dropping out; a balance of federal incentives encouraging both student achievement and graduation; and a targeted effort at the few hundred high schools where the problem is most severe.

In the last few months, Colorado has joined the growing ranks of states that have raised their compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17. Florida recently authorized school districts to raise their attendance age from 16 to 18. Such efforts should be encouraged and should be coupled with more support for struggling students.

In the coming months, we hope educators, policy-makers and the public will use all means — congressional hearings, conferences, public forums in schools and communities, structural reforms in our schools, dropout-prevention initiatives and even legislation where appropriate — to engage leaders in an understanding of the dropout epidemic and introduce them to common solutions. The aim is to transform our view of these children, so we see them not as problems to be solved but as potential to be fulfilled.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises, author of “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts” and a former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

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