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High School Drop Outs

Here’s a 50 billion dollar problem, and its unfolding right in your backyard: one out of three teenagers drop out of school each year before or at the age of 18. You may not buy into that number, you look around at your children’s circle of friends and may not see a single potential dropout in the bunch. If that’s true, then you probably live in a neighborhood of relative affluence – count the SUVs and minivans at the nearest stoplight – and low crime. Which means that for this number to be valid across all of our nation’s communities, it must be markedly higher in low-income, high-crime neighbor-hoods, which is precisely the case. One out of three. It doesn’t take a Johns Hopkins University social analysis to illuminate the consequences of that statistic: three quarters of all crime committed in this country are perpetrated by high school dropouts. Dropouts are orders of magnitude more likely to partake of the government dole that you are funding with your tax dollars to the tune of $200 billion annually. Dropouts earn only about 60% of what high school grads make, and only 40% of what college degree holders earn. The result of that is a $50 billion shortfall in comparative federal and state income tax revenues, not to mention the marginally increased costs required to support the medical and social needs of this demographic niche. Here’s another sobering statistic: if the high school graduation rate in this country could be increased by as little as one percent, we’d see a $1.4 billion reduction in health care costs alone.

These are steep prices to pay for issues that we, as a collective society and sponsors of the very school systems that reside at the heart of the problem, are responsible for. It’s too easy to blame the dropouts themselves, or their parents or even the culture of the neighborhoods in which they live. The problem exacerbates when you consider that over 90 percent of workers surveyed within the very programs and structures that exist to address the dropout problem claim their resources are inadequate, that more volunteers and community support is required to make a dent in the data. Surveyed dropouts themselves, who might quickly and unjustly be easily written off as a less than credible window into the nature of the problem, say the blame belongs to a lack of relevant education and credible teachers – relevant and credible being the key words here – along with minimal community support.

All signs point in one direction as a means of stemming this troubling tide. The community itself – from the school system to after-school programs and especially to parents – needs to step up its game. Youth mentoring programs, alternative education, after-school programs and youth mentoring structures need not only to proliferate, but to accelerate in terms of their relevance to the needs of today’s young people. We need to set a higher bar for our teachers, and to support that standard with adequate funding and training. We need to clamp down on negative peer influences, to get the bad seeds out of the mainstream and into programs that unfold away from those who feel threatened by them. And we need to explore and develop parental resources and education programs that create an environment of support for the student at home. It’s a tall order, but one that we must meet with urgency and proactive creativity. Because the cost is unthinkable on many levels, not the least of which is the very thing our country stands for – the chance for everyone, regardless of who they are, to live a full, happy and safe life. It all begins at home, and when home isn’t enough – and even when it is enough – our schools need to be there for our children, as well.

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