Spotlight Exclusives

Fight Poverty: Lower High School Drop Out Rates, by John Bridgeland

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While reading through the posts in the “Exclusive Commentary” section of this website, I was struck by the number of useful proposals for combating poverty. We۪ve heard good ideas on food stamps, marriage, the EITC, health, and supporting fathers. There is at least one cause of poverty, however, that deserves more attention: high school dropout rates.

When our children do not graduate from high school, they are setting themselves up for a rocky and difficult adulthood. The statistics are clear: people who do not complete high school are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, receive public assistance, serve jail time, be divorced, and be single parents who have children who drop out of high school themselves.

Two years ago, I co-authored a report called The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts in which we conducted focus groups and surveys with high school dropouts to find out who they were, why they dropped out, and what they believed would have helped them stay in school. The students we interviewed led us to a number of conclusions. Among the most provocative:

· Nearly half said that the reason they dropped out was because school was not interesting, that they were bored and disengaged.

· Nearly one-third said they had to quit so that they could get a job to make money or to care for an ill family member.

· Nearly 70 percent cited not feeling motivated or inspired to work hard and many would have liked higher expectations and more challenging courses.

We also learned some startling factsa majority of states permitted students to drop out at 16; schools reported inflated graduation rates; and most students who missed or dropped out of school were never contacted by the school, nor were their parents.

The economic consequences of the dropout crisis are clear. Dropouts earn $1 million less over their lifetimes than college graduates. Dropouts are more than twice as likely as high school graduates to slip into poverty in a single year. The government would reap $45 billion in extra tax revenue and reduced costs if the number of high school graduates among 20 year olds today (more than 700,000) were cut in half.

There are a number of solutions to the high school dropout crisis. One outcome of The Silent Epidemic report was a 10-point plan to address the crisis, with more than 100 organizations behind it. This plan includes everything from supporting accurate data, to establishing early warning systems, providing adult advocates, supporting rigorous curriculum and focusing on research in order to disseminate best practices. It also includes changes in law and policies at the state and national levels.

One of the most compelling ideas to curb high school dropout is using service-learning to ensure the curriculum is engaging and demanding enough to keep students in the classroom. In our focus groups in 2006, 81 percent of respondents said that more opportunities for “real-world” learning would have helped them to stay in school. Their response makes sense: seeing the connection between school and a job would show them that school was worth it and help keep them engaged in the classroom.

We supported this idea with additional research in the recent report entitled Engaged for Success: Service-Learning as a Tool for High School Dropout Prevention. More than 75 percent of all students said that service-learning classes were more interesting than other classes and 83 percent of all students said they would definitely or probably enroll in service-learning classes if they were offered. Unfortunately, only 16 percent of students said their school offered such classes. Service-learning can improve academic performance, attendance, and reduce the achievement gap between minority and majority students.

High school dropouts face a much greater risk of living in poverty. Service-learning is one tool to combat high school dropout and ensure more young people are motivated to complete their education by learning in relevant, rigorous classrooms across this nation.

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