Educators, politicians, and MTV take aim at US dropout 'epidemic'

A national summit in Washington addresses the issue, hoping to get more students to graduate.

With her grandmother correcting her grammar every step of the way, Jynell Harrison made it to high school graduation in 2005. It wasn't easy being surrounded by "a lot of kids that didn't really care about education" and teachers who "get fed up with kids not paying attention, and kind of lose interest," she says in a phone interview. Nearly half the students in her district, Providence, R.I., don't graduate high school within four years.

Now making gelato for a living and paying rent to her mom, Ms. Harrison poured her ideas about education into an essay after hearing about a $10,000 college scholarship contest on MTV. She won, and on May 9 she'll speak in front of hundreds of educators, policymakers, and peers at the National Summit to End America's Silent Dropout Epidemic. "I'm most looking forward to having my opinion mean something," she says.

The summit in Washington is carrying forward the momentum that's been building for the past few years in response to some sobering statistics: About 3 out of 10 American ninth-graders don't graduate with their class – with the ratio climbing to nearly half for African-Americans, Hispanics, and native Americans.

By combining student voices, examples of successful policies, and a new online tool for pinpointing graduation rates in every school district in the United States, it's meant to be an "action-forcing event," says John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, the public policy group leading the summit. Cosponsors include the National Governors Association, MTV, Time magazine, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Two bipartisan bills were recently proposed in the US Congress that would authorize about $3 billion toward redu­cing dropout rates. A number of governors and local officials are also tackling the issue head-on as more people sound the alarm over the implications of a high dropout rate for America's future. "We've been asleep at the switch for a number of decades ... and now for the first time ... we're potentially on the cusp of really grabbing hold of this dropout issue and doing something meaningful about it," says Mr. Bridgeland, who co-wrote "The Silent Epidemic," a 2006 report on the perspectives of dropouts.

Such perspectives are also center stage in a documentary about three high-schoolerson the brink of graduating – or not. "The Dropout Chronicles" premieres May 9 on MTV in conjunction with the summit. It follows the teens as they talk with counselors, face pressure from friends who have dropped out, and struggle to earn their last credits. "It's not sugarcoated," says Ian Rowe, a vice president at MTV. "We hear from our audience that when they see stories like that ... it helps them in their own life figure out how they can best prepare to graduate from high school ready for college."

The documentary also directs young people to a website (www.mtv.com/thinkmtv/education) with resources for getting through high school graduation and thinking about college.

Pinning down realistic graduation rates is one key to finding solutions. An online color-coded interactive map will be released at the summit by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center (EPERC), a nonprofit in Washington. Click on any school district and you'll get a report showing what percentage of students who start ninth grade graduate four years later, the number of students lost in each grade in between, and how the district compares with the state and the nation. (It's available May 9 at www.silentepidemic.org.)

This method is meant to counteract the tendency of some districts to overstate graduation rates by counting only the percentage of the 12th-grade class that graduates, while many students drop out before then. But some critics fault the EPERC method because it does not account for students who transfer in or out and how that affects the rate. Christopher Swanson, director of the center, says the online tool is the best information available; based on a federal database, it's the only way to compare districts across states.

Governors in all 50 states agreed to a Graduation Counts Compact in 2005, saying they would work toward reporting graduation based on the portion of ninth-graders who finish four years later. That's important, Bridgeland says, because "if you miss a year or don't finish on time, your chances of coming back [and graduating] are small." So far at least 13 states have complied, and several dozen more expect to comply by 2010.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have also made school compulsory until age 18, and more than a dozen legislatures are considering such proposals.

But many advocates and policymakers emphasize the need for high schools to offer a more engaging experience that students see as relevant. Even without an influx of new resources, schools and communities can make a big difference for borderline students, Bridgeland says. In his report, about half the students who started missing a lot of school said they weren't ever contacted by the school to find out why. Many "longed for service-learning, internships, theme-based classes," he says. Two-thirds said they would have worked harder if more were demanded of them.

Jynell Harrison, the MTV winner, credits her family and her freshman English teacher with showing her the value of education.

"I would try to get people to appreciate that we had a free education, so why not learn?" she says, but after ninth grade even she felt "teachers didn't seem to care that much."

The summit will highlight a variety of approaches that have shown some success at improving the environment in high schools. For instance, more than 100 high schools have started or been redesigned in the past four years as part of the Early College High School Initiative. Students recruited from low-performing groups take college courses while still in high school. The ninth-graders in the schools that opened initially have graduated at a rate of 90 percent, with more than 80 percent accepted into four-year colleges.

A lawmaker in Maine recently introduced a state bill requiring all high-schoolers to fill out a college application before graduating. Students wouldn't be forced to apply, but similar moves in some schools have motivated more students to graduate.

Some of the strongest advocates for dropout reduction are civil rights groups like the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), which is pushing for a reauthorized version of No Child Left Behind that would hold schools accountable for graduation rates, not just test scores. "To this day, when you say that 50 percent of Latinos don't make it to graduation, people are still surprised by that, and I think it's time we start ... doing something about that data," says Melissa Lazarín, a senior policy analyst at NCLR.

Dire dropout rates, particularly for African-American males, are a focal point for The Black Star Project in Chicago, which promotes mentoring and school improvement nationwide. The group has distributed thousands of "contracts" to students in elementary schools and high schools, featuring stark information about the ramifications of dropping out, such as becoming more likely to go to prison.

"We wanted to put shock value in that contract – we wanted kids to look at this and say 'Wow, if I drop out, this is the life I'm gonna live?' " says executive director Phillip Jackson.

The contract gives students two choices of where to sign: One acknowledges that if they drop out, "the quality of my life and the lives of my loved ones will be dramatically decreased," and the other is an agreement to "do whatever it takes to graduate from high school...."

Top five reasons dropouts cite for leaving school

47% Classes were not interesting

43% Missed too many days and could not catch up

42% Spent time with people who were not interested in school

38% Had too much freedom and not enough rules in my life

35% Was failing in school

Source: The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, a report by Civic Enterprises, 2006

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