TV documentary focuses on dropout crisis

In less than two months, clad in cap and gown, diploma in hand and a milestone behind them, 3 million high school seniors throughout the United States will step down from auditorium stages into bright, hopeful futures. Overshadowing such graduation celebrations this June, however, is the sobering fact that more than 1 million students will not complete their educations. The tragic reality, unchanged for the last 10 years, is that roughly 25 percent of American pupils drop out of school. In certain urban areas the figure rises to 40 and 50 percent. Many of these youngsters ``graduate'' to a world of unemployment, poverty, welfare dependency, crime, and hopelessness.

The severity of America's dropout problem and the success of a select group of dropout-prevention programs are explored in ``Dropout,'' a one-hour documentary produced by Capital Cities TV Productions. Gabe Kaplan is host of the program, which is syndicated nationally on some 140 stations from now until the end of the month (check local listings).

While ``Dropout'' does not break any new ground in terms of reporting the enormity of the problem, it does examine numerous people and schools that are helping potential dropout teen-agers complete their educations. If this were all it did, it would be worth viewing.

But a more compelling reason exists. To date, the substantial educational reform efforts -- under way since the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its 1983 report labeling America a ``nation at risk'' -- have largely bypassed the crucial question of what to do with young people who fail. ``Dropout'' faces the challenge such students represent to our democracy and provides a context for action.

The reasons and consequences of the dropout problem are well known if not well understood. A geographic distribution of dropouts shows that dropout rates are lowest in the suburbs, higher in rural areas, and highest in cities. Dropout rates are also higher in the West and South than in the Northeast.

About 25 percent of girls who become pregnant or bear a child drop out, the show reports. Eighty percent of these never return to a classroom. Without academic skills to get a job or the financial resources to pay for child care, many end up on welfare.

In some states fully 70 percent of the prison inmate population consists of former dropouts. What this figure suggests to some is that dropouts, having few job skills and often unable to read or fill out a job application, turn to crime as an easy though wrong answer to earning money. Given high prison costs (an average of $25,000 to $40,000 a year per inmate), the cost of the crime itself, the lost productivity and potential tax revenue from the individual dropout, society's final bill is staggering.

Host Kaplan, a high school dropout himself, emphasizes that there are no easy answers to help stem the flow of teen-agers out of the nation's schools. But the program goes on to note some useful points:

Schools with low student-to-teacher ratios and smaller classes are less likely to have dropout problems. The same holds true for schools with low teacher turnover. Small schools generally tend to have lower dropout rates than big ones, in which students tend to feel more anonymous. One-to-one contact is the critical strategy in dropout-prevention programs.

``Dropout'' presents three factors needed to keep a teen-ager in school: special individual attention and care from adults; imbuing in the student a feeling that he is expected to be responsible; the existence of nonschool programs connected to communities, especially job-related programs.

``Dropout'' also offers upbeat profiles of students whose lives have been saved by successful programs. Kevon Powell is an example. Now in his 20s and working for a Wall Street brokerage firm, he recalls how, out of ten of his friends who dropped out, only he and two others are leading what can be considered productive lives. Drugs and crime overwhelmed the other seven.

Katy, a girl from a poor family in Appalachia, manages to earn a high school diploma just a month before delivering her second child. And Billy, a former drug dealer in Knoxville, Tenn., confesses that without Rule High's dropout program, ``I'd either be dead or in jail.''

For this viewer, listening to individual students, each struggling and finding the words to communicate what kept him or her in school is the program's most valuable contribution.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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