`NOBODY cared if I stayed in school or not.'' That's the explanation most high school dropouts give, educators say. To more directly meet that complaint, as well as others, the nation's schools are experimenting with some fresh answers to the age-old problem of students leaving before graduation.
Educators traditionally have focused on what's wrong with the student. They have tried everything from work-study programs to remedial courses as encouragement to continue school. Now they are looking more at how schools themselves must change. They want to prevent rather than retrieve dropouts.
Convinced that potential dropouts can be spotted early on, educators are trying to shore up these ``at risk'' students with extra academic and other support in preschool and the early grades.
The data on dropouts are far from definitive. Generally accepted, however, is the estimate that 25 percent of all high school students drop out each year and that the figure nears 50 percent in central cities.
But the National Center for Education Statistics reported last fall that dropout rates have declined over the last decade and that the once disproportionately larger share of black dropouts now more closely parallels the rate of white students. The 36 percent dropout rate for Hispanic students, however, remains ``a national tragedy'' by US Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos.
Along with the new experiments has come a growing awareness that each dropout is costly - not just to the individual but to society. More jobs require higher skill levels than in the past. Male unemployment rates are twice as high for dropouts as for high school graduates. Many dropouts get mixed up in crime and drugs.
Low-income families, one-parent homes, low achievement even in the early grades are among the signs that trouble may lie ahead. Research suggests that a student failing in first, second, or third grade is likely to fail again later and may, in time, drop out.
``We need to invest in strategies at earlier ages that make kids successful so they don't experience failure after failure,'' says Samuel Husk, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools.
Business efforts to help have been shifting from adopt-a-school programs - where the emphasis was on money for school projects and on building career awareness - to more help at an earlier stage.
``Business is becoming more and more educated to the fact that we need to prevent problems rather than to fix them after they become problems,'' says Sandra Hamburg, director of education studies for the Committee for Economic Development. She cites as one of the best examples ``Success by Six,'' a Minneapolis program of extra help for youngsters run by the United Way and funded through a coalition of local businesses.
Many experts in the field say increased federal funding for early childhood programs is vital. The child-care bill now pending on Capitol Hill includes more than $600 million for Headstart and preschool programs.
Schools and businesses have tried everything from cash rewards to threats to deter dropouts. Last year, Pepsi-Cola Company launched a $2 million pilot program in Detroit and Dallas of tuition awards for post-secondary education for inner-city students who meet certain attendance and grade criteria.
The traditional ploy of phoning parents of truant youngsters often works well, educators say, at least until the teen years. Wisconsin has drawn considerable press attention for its new practice of reducing welfare payments to families whose children are regularly absent from school. In 1988 West Virginia became the first state - eight others have since followed its lead - to take away the driver's license of any dropout until he or she returns to school or becomes 18.
SOME experts harbor doubts about the effectiveness of such threats. ``If the quality of education or reasons for dropping out aren't addressed, then such programs just increase the seat count,'' notes Ms. Hamburg.
Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, says the driver's license laws rate an ``A'' for calling attention to the problem, but he doubts they will work. He says his organization has a data base of some 350 successful dropout strategies, now compressed around a dozen themes. ``We know what works,'' says Mr. Smink. ``It's a matter of getting the word out and having the resources to do it.''
Much of the answer, educators say, comes down to increased individual attention for students.
Successful efforts, particularly in the difficult transition from the middle school to high school, include the use of older students as mentors for ninth graders and the assignment of guidance counselors. Another successful strategy involves the assignment of guidance counselors to the same students for two to four years.
Reserving the first day of high school for ninth graders alone and smaller ninth-grade classes are also a help, says Charles Orloff, the principal of Mattacheese Middle School in West Yarmouth, Mass. Concerned that 42 percent of his district's students were failing at least one of five major subjects in ninth grade, he studied ways to help bridge the transition from eighth to ninth grade during a sabbatical. ``There's not just one answer to all this,'' he says. ``It's lots of little things. The key is personalizing them.''
That sense of ``bonding to'' with a school is difficult but very important, says Nancy Peck, chairwoman of the National Dropout Prevention Network at the University of Miami. Noting that cheerleaders, football players, and band members rarely drop out despite academic trouble, she says schools need to be restructured to allow other students to feel some of that same sense of belonging.
A wide variety of distractions, including broken homes, peer pressure, and teen pregnancy play a role in the decision to drop out. Educators say the mixed motives point up the need to focus on the whole child, particularly during the crucial early years.
``The challenge is to develop a complete support system for these kids so they don't fall through the cracks,'' says Mr. Husk of the Council of Great City Schools.
Husk says all major cities are showing some improvement in the dropout rate. Some critics say the gain is misleading in that some students are simply taking longer to graduate. ``Our response in urban education is, `So what?' I think students should stay as long as it takes to get a diploma that means something.''