The story behind dropout rates
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But overall dropout rates remain a problem that simply doesn't get the attention it deserves, says Pedro Noguera, professor of sociology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.Skip to next paragraph
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Hispanic students obviously face a particular academic challenge if English is not their first language - particularly, points out Professor Noguera, those who may not be literate in Spanish, either. But, in an era in US public schools that tends to focus on high-stakes testing and that continues to place higher demands on students, "it's an issue that's not even on the radar for a lot of policy-makers," Noguera says.
But at the same time, he adds, sometimes focusing on dropout rates for minority students minimizes the ongoing problems faced by poor white children as well.
"We tend to generalize about groups, and there's a tendency to render poor white kids invisible," he says.
There is also a tendency to overlook the huge number of young men - particularly young black men - in prison without high school diplomas, Western says.
What many Americans forget when reading headlines about soaring prison populations is that the vast majority of these prisoners will eventually leave jail and reenter society - without the benefit of enough education to find even an entry-level job.
Ironically, today's more crowded prisons offer inmates fewer educational opportunities than in past decades. "Resources for prison programming, including educational programs, have all contracted as the prison population has gotten larger and larger," Western says.
The best time to focus on breaking the link between low levels of educational attainment and crime is long before either high school graduation or prison, most educators say.
That's why Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio (about 15 miles from downtown Cleveland), decided to tackle this particular problem in its own backyard.
According to city figures, about 50 percent of students in Cleveland do not make it from ninth to 10th grade. And the group most clearly at risk, says Denise Reading, vice president of student affairs at the college, is young urban males.
It's hard to look at Cleveland schools, she says, and not ask the question: "Where are our young men, particularly our young men of color?"
This summer, Baldwin-Wallace launched the Barbara Byrd-Bennetts Scholars Program. The program will bring 34 Cleveland eighth-graders on campus for two weeks this summer to sharpen English and math skills.
Throughout the school year, the boys will continue to receive mentoring and tutorial support in addition to participating in on-campus residential programs over the next four years - a level of involvement that will hopefully support them all the way up to high school graduation.
"We know how to tackle" the problem of dropouts, Dr. Reading says. "The question is, Are we willing to do what we know will work?"
One of the hardest things about tracking high school graduation rates is determining which numbers to use.
Statistics often vary dramatically. For instance, numbers compiled by the federal government show the national high school graduation rate for 2000 to be 86.5 percent, while Jay Greene, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, pegs the same figure at 69 percent.
The government includes in its graduation rate students who attain a high school equivalency diploma, while Mr. Greene does not. At the same time, Greene counts students who land in prison as nongraduates, while the government simply doesn't count them at all.
Dozens of other factors may skew numbers as well. If the dropout rate is calculated by comparing the senior class with the junior class, that figure fails to take into account all students who dropped out between ninth and eleventh grades. A comparison with ninth-graders might show a markedly different number.
Also, when calculating national figures, Census Bureau data are often used to determine how many 18-year-olds graduate. But those data may underrepresent the poorest populations - exactly those most likely to fail to graduate.
It's hard to agree on standards to be used in compiling such figures. The danger, however, is that groups determined to do so can use these numbers to make widely divergent points.