Big cities bear the brunt of a rising high school dropout rate

After decades of improvement, the nation's school completion rate has stagnated over the past 15 years despite the large amounts of money and attention focused on education. Nearly one-quarter of the nation's students fail to graduate, though some go on to earn GEDs and other alternative credentials.

"As states impose new standards and high-stakes tests for graduation and promotion, some predict that our dropout problem will only get more dire," says Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve Inc., a consortium of state and corporate leaders. "Our challenge is to raise academic standards for all students, while simultaneously ensuring that at-risk students receive the supports they need to meet the standards and stay in school."

The dropout problem is most severe in big cities. Crushing social problems and poor academic preparation often eliminate huge percentages of students from the rolls before they graduate.

In Philadelphia, nearly half the students who enter ninth grade do not graduate four years later. Just 59 percent graduate within six years of entering high school. The problem is most critical at the 22 neighborhood high schools, which enroll the 70 percent of Philadelphia's ninth- through 12th-graders who don't attend citywide magnet programs.

At Strawberry Mansion High School in North Philadelphia, for example, just 147 seniors received high school diplomas last spring, about one-third the number who started school four years earlier.

"Dropouts don't have a place in our economy," says Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which hosted a January conference about the issue with Achieve Inc.

In 1940, only 38 percent of the nation's 25- to 29-year-olds had completed high school, partly because a diploma was not crucial for the agricultural and factory jobs that dominated the economy. By the mid-1980s, that number - which includes recipients of conventional high school diplomas and those who receive alternative credentials such as GEDs - had increased to 86 percent, where it has remained since.

But that figure masks a recent drop in the percentage of students who earn conventional high school diplomas, a credential researchers call essential in today's job market. That number has gone from roughly 80 percent to about 75 percent in the past 15 years.

At the beginning of the past school year, Strawberry Mansion began a program that included segregating freshmen in one area of the building, assigning them specially trained teachers and scheduling double periods of reading and math. It also launched a late-afternoon program for disruptive students.

Fifty-five percent of Strawberry Mansion's freshmen passed their core subjects last year, and nearly two-thirds moved on to become sophomores.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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