Leader Blues

Friday, December 26, 2008

TOP STORY > >High school dropout rates considered crisis

Leader staff writer

By any reckoning, the high school dropout rate in Arkansas constitutes a crisis, and the Arkan-sas Department of Education has resolved to tackle the problem, which impacts lives of individuals, as well as communities, the state, and the nation as a whole.

In Arkansas, 68.7 percent of all students graduate, a rate slightly below the national average. For those without a diploma or GED, earning potential will be reduced almost $10,000 a year and almost a half million dollars in a lifetime. Their health will be imperiled by more chronic disease, and their length of life eclipsed by an average of nine years.

The impacts of not graduating high school extend far beyond the life of the individual. The 7,000 kids who drop out of U.S. high schools each day will be more likely to rely on public assistance, need more health care, and be more prone to anti-social or criminal activity.

A one-day summit last week hosted by the Arkansas Department of Education launched the Arkansas Greater Gradua-tion Project, an initiative devoted to reducing dropout rates and part of a national alliance started by retired General Colin Powell.
Representatives of 14 school districts with some of the worst graduation rates, as well as business and community leaders, parents, and students, were invited to the meeting to learn about the seriousness of the problem and the need to work together to solve it. The hope is that the 14 districts will become regional hubs for engaging all districts statewide in dropout reduction efforts.

Among the 14 districts were the three Pulaski County districts – Pulaski County Special, Little Rock and North Little Rock, all of which have graduation rates below the state average. Gov. Mike Beebe opened the event by urging everyone to collaborate to solve what is a complex, community problem, not just something to be left to the schools to deal with.

“Schools can’t be responsible for every aspect of a child’s wellbeing and upbringing,” Beebe said. “We need to bring as many players together as possible – the bankers, the judges, and civic leaders. And parents. They have to step up and do their part.

Everybody has a stake in this issue.”

State education commissioner Ken James told the group that the days are over when someone could make a decent living and amass wealth with just a high school education.

The number of Arkansans who finish college must drastically improve or the state will be left behind economically, he warned. Nationally, 27 percent of the population age 25 and older has a four-year degree. In Arkansas, the rate is 18.7 percent, the lowest in the nation. Among developed nations, the college graduation rate is 55 percent.

“That is one statistic we need to change if we are going to continue to grow,” James said.

He urged educators to talk to youth to understand why they leave school. According to one national survey, young adults said that they were not challenged in high school, and should – and could have – worked harder.

“They said they were much more prone to apply themselves with vigor if they had a teacher who cared and knew the subject matter,” James said.

State Chamber of Commerce president Randy Zook was explicit about what businesses expect in entry-level workers and how well public schools are doing in preparing students for the work force.

“Are your customers happy? In a word – ‘No.’ Customers are not happy with the product you are producing,” Zook said.

Businesses are looking for four things, he continued: reasonable math skills, not calculus, just the basics; the ability to read instructions; the ability to find and interpret information – and the willingness to show up for work every day.

Zook knows of an east Arkansas manufacturer who could create more than 200 good-paying jobs, but can’t find enough dependable workers.

“Attendance is horrific, so he is unwilling to make the commitment.”

Increasing graduation rates will take dedication, time and personal involvement in the lives of individual students.

“It will take hand-to-hand combat, one teacher persuading one student at a time,” Zook said.

Forrest City School District, which put a dropout reduction program in motion last year, was showcased at the event. A coalition of educators, community and business leaders and parents was formed to keep kids in school in the 3,700-student district, which was identified by the state as academically distressed.

A big motivator, it turns out, was challenging students to meet criteria of the Arkansas Scholars program. Those who made the grade were honored by the local chamber of commerce and they get a “Smart Core” seal on their diploma.

“This helped catch kids who were falling between the cracks, not necessarily the top 10 percent,” said Tara Thomason, director of communications for Forrest City Schools. “Now they are more likely to go to community college.”

Zook agreed that the Smart Core curriculum that does not skimp on course requirements in English, science, math, and social science is a must for today’s entry-level worker.

“If you don’t have a Smart Core high school diploma, good luck,” he said.

The Arkansas Greater Grad-uation Project is made possible by a grant from America’s Promise Alliance, an organization dedicated to the wellbeing of youth, as well as a $100,000 grant from A&T Arkansas and a $15,000 grant from State Farm Insurance.

The AT&T grant comes from a national AT&T Foundation program that has committed $100 million by 2011 to improve high school graduation rates and workforce readiness across the country.