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Friday, November 2, 2007

High school dropout factories?

October 31, 2007

While doing one of our typical searches of education news stories, BoardBuzz came across the frightening (just in time for Halloween, we suppose) headline on -- 1 in 10 Schools are 'Dropout Factories'. Sure sounded like just another article blasting public education. But after reading further and eventually getting past the alarming language, BoardBuzz found a lot that was valuable. For one, the statistics are quite troubling: about 1,700 (12 percent) of our nation's high schools do not graduate more than 60 percent of their 9th graders within four years. Since these schools enroll close to 3 million students we're probably talking about hundred of thousands of students not graduating on time.

But unlike so many other articles that just take cheap shots at our nation's public schools, this article actually took the time to look at the cause of the problem and ways to fix it. The article mentioned that many of these high schools are in high-poverty areas where students are likely to drop out to work full time or be lured away by gangs – factors that on face value don't appear within the realm of the schools' control.

But there are things schools can do to overcome these problems. The article highlighted the success of the inner-city Baltimore Talent Development High School. This school was founded by John Hopkins researcher Bob Balfanz, who actually coined the phrase "Dropout Factory." The school, located in a high-crime high-poverty neighborhood in Baltimore, Md., now has 90 percent of its students on track to graduate, which is a whole lot better than the 60 percent seen in many similar high schools. Teachers and students point to the school's focus on ensuring that teachers, students, and administrators know each other well so no student falls through the cracks or feels unimportant.

Twelfth-grader Jasmine Coleman noted "I know teachers that have knocked on people's doors. They want us to succeed."

School boards and other education policymakers have recognized the dropout problem and are working hard to fix it. One such state that has garnered a lot of attention recently for their policy to encourage students at-risk of dropping out to take college level courses is New York. This sounded counterintuitive to BoardBuzz but our friends over at the Center for Public Education say the policy is based on research that shows students of all achievement levels are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college if they take college courses in high school. These programs are especially effective for low-income students. A summary of one such report can be found on the Center's Web site. There you will also find what research has found to be successful dropout prevention strategies that are actually getting more students to cross that stage at the end of high school – including more challenging subject matter.

These are important strategies to help decrease dropout rates but by no means are they silver bullets. School board members, educators and each community need to work together to make sure every student feels valued and significantly reduce dropouts in every district.

To learn more about how prevent dropouts and raise graduation rates read The Center for Public Education's The Straight Story on High School Graduation Rates and Research Review: Keeping Kids in School.

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