More high school students stay in class

America's high school dropout problem appears to be on the mend. A study for release today shows Cincinnati's dropout rate declined between 1970 and '80. Nationally, the dropout rate also has leveled off in recent years after rising in the 1970s.

``We've made some good progress,'' says Ronald Fredrickson, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts. Many schools are identifying problem students early to try to remedy the situation. Current efforts to improve teachers also bode well, he adds.

Yet, within this general improvement are pockets of resistance, primarily among inner-city minority students. While this group is making some improvement, society's demands for literacy are increasing, says Michael E. Maloney, urban staff director of the Appalachian People's Service Organization (APSO).

Mr. Maloney's study shows that 22 percent of adults 25 and over had less than a ninth-grade education -- a level he considers functional illiterate. Generally, the city of Cincinnati is making slower progress than its suburbs, in both functional illiteracy and dropout rates.

Between 1970 and '80 in the metropolitan area, which includes the suburbs, the percentage of high school graduates among the population 25 years and older rose from 48.4 percent to 63.3 percent. By contrast, the city rate moved only from 50.9 percent to 57.9 percent in the same period.

The high dropout rate is not unique to Cincinnati.

``It's a common pattern of urban centers,'' says Fred Hess, executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Finances, which released its own dropout study two weeks ago. The group is a coalition of 17 civic organizations concerned with education.

Mr. Hess's group found that 40 percent of Chicago's high school students dropped out in 1984. Minorities were the most likely to drop out.

In Chicago, Hispanics had the highest rate, with 47 percent, blacks were at 45 percent, whites, 35 percent. In Cincinnati, eight of 10 neighborhoods with the highest dropout rates were in primarily urban Appalachian neighborhoods; the other two were primarily black.

Comparisons of these two cities or any others are difficult, says Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States. The commission is an interstate compact set up to collect education data.

Currently, there is no consistent method of measuring the dropout problem. Despite variations among cities, many education experts agree that the most severe need is in the inner cities among minority youths. Help may be on the way.

One positive trend is that the dropout problem is getting more visibility as states improve public schools, Mr. Pipho says. In recent years, reform legislation has been introduced in every state. Last year, no fewer than 275 state-level commissions were studying the problem.

Seven states -- California, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia -- have enacted major school reform packages.

In the first nine weeks of South Carolina's school year, new reforms that included a crackdown on absenteeism cut in half the number of students having five or more unexcused absences. Often, educators say, unexcused absences indicate future dropouts.

Meanwhile, a number of local efforts have sprung up.

In one of Cincinnati's most educationally deprived neighborhoods, the Lower Price Hill Community School has been helping Appalachian dropouts get their high school equivalency degree. The school has been so successful that it started a college program in 1983 and now has two of its graduates enrolled in area colleges.

Four other Appalachian community schools in the city are either set up or being proposed, says Jake Kroger, coordinator of the Lower Price Hill school.

``We need to help ourselves,'' agrees Maloney of the APSO. But ``even if you're using a church basement [for classes], someone has to pay the rent.'' He says that federal funding will be needed to tackle the inner-city dropout problem.

``The challenge for the central cities is extremely heavy,'' Maloney says, ``because they not only have concentrations of poor and low-income people, they have a disproportionate share of underedu- cated people.''

Perhaps not surprisingly, some factors about public schools that turn off Appalachians also play a role for other dropouts.

``Just a more sympathetic school atmosphere, less bureaucratic . . . would solve a lot of these things,'' says Stuart Faber, chairman of a Cincinnati task force that studied Appalachian alternatives for education.

Researchers are also finding that helping teachers teach better and getting students involved in organized school activities can help reduce the dropout problem, says Professor Fredrickson.

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