High School Dropouts Look for a Second Chance
> 2/13/2007 10:32:31 AM

Education experts and casual followers of related news encounter recurring reports about the American dropout epidemic, its detrimental effect on the larger workforce, and the importance of keeping our kids in school. While insistent harping on the problem may desensitize some to its ugly realities, these alarming statistics refuse to be ignored: in the period from October 1999 to October 2000 alone, 5 out of 100 students who were previously enrolled in high school dropped out. Yearly numbers total between 350,000 and 550,000; ultimately, almost one-third of all American teens do not graduate with their high school classes. Among special-ed students and those born outside the United States, the numbers are significantly higher. And in notoriously troubled urban areas like Washington D.C. and parts of Los Angeles, half of all adolescents do not graduate and 15 percent never even enroll.

When broken down comparitively, these numbers reveal socioeconomic status as the most significant determinant in the dropout equation. While overall rates among minority students are notably higher than those of their classmates (approaching fifty percent nationwide), the same statistics even out when samples are controlled for income and location. The bottom line is that children with families whose economic status places them in the lowest fifth of the population are at least six times as likely to quit school as those in the top 20 percent.

Independent studies performed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reveal more of the circumstances perpetuating these trends. The reasons kids give for leaving school are perhaps the most damning: while academic difficulties are certainly a factor, and one third of those surveyed were previously required to repeat at least one grade, just over 35 percent list failing marks as the primary reason for their exit from the academic stage, while a near-majority say boredom and indifference were the deciding factors.

Where, then, does the largest share of blame lie? While most dropouts take full responsibility for their actions, a vast majority say that large-scale improvements in school atmosphere and curriculum would help to persuade current and future students that high school is very much relevant to their everyday lives and that withdrawal is not a decision to be taken lightly. Many report feeling that the school experience left them with far too much unstructured time that was ultimately not spent on academic pursuits; they believe that greater oversight would encourage kids to focus on their work. It's also understandably difficult for many students to appreciate the influence that math and science courses will have on their adult lives, and more than 80 percent say they would like to see far more real-world exercises that draw them away from their desks and serve to make a clearer connection between academic dedication and success in the professional world. Most want more individual attention from teachers and counselors, particularly for those with learning disabilities and other impediments. Some even say their parents should take greater responsibility by enforcing curfews and punishing them for continued absences.

One can still draw some degree of positive news from these dispiriting reports: 75 percent of those surveyed report that, given a second chance, they would remain in school until graduation. Luckily, even as their decisions have made for a more difficult road, these students have several options for re-entering the world of education and earning the diplomas that 47 percent believe will lead them toward an improved quality of life. Whether earning their GEDs through military service and related programs or enrolling in special charter schools or non-profit organizations specifically dedicated to remedial work for dropouts looking to earn diplomas, these kids register surprisingly high success rates. But as long as the current atmosphere of general disinterest remains in place, the cycle will continue: after a period of decline during the 70's and 80's, the American dropout rate has largely evened out, and it will not disappear anytime soon. Instead of pointing to ignorance or a lack of familial encouragement on the part of the students involved, we should be looking inward to find solutions within the very framework of the systems that make such appalling numbers inevitable.

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