Dealing with dropouts

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School's out for summer ... school's out forever!

So shrieked Alice Cooper in the title track on a 1972 album, which still serves as an anthem for a lot of kids at the end of the school year.

The problem is, too many students take "forever" to heart and never return to complete their education, propelling the dropout rate to alarming highs.

A National Center for Education Statistics report released in January showed that dropout rates in Pennsylvania public high schools reached their lowest point in a decade, but that still means more than 14,000 students quit school last year across the commonwealth.

In nearly 10 percent of Pennsylvania's high schools -- 54 of 598 -- fewer than 60 percent of freshmen progress to their senior year on time. This number places the state among the nation's lowest performers.

Dropping out of school isn't just a choice -- it's a life-changing disadvantage with wide-ranging implications for individuals and society.

High school dropouts are more likely to commit a crime -- 75 percent of state inmates lack a high school diploma -- to rely on government health care and to use other public services, such as food stamps or housing assistance.

Dropouts pay for their decision to leave school with a lifetime of diminished opportunities and menial wages.

The problem is particularly thorny because the numerous reasons given for dropping out -- from poor performance in class to little family support, from a lack of motivation to drug and alcohol abuse or pregnancy -- have cultivated well-meaning grassroots programs, but the issue continues to lap any substantial, long-term solution.

The large number of dropouts has stoked concern over rising costs for social programs and prisons, as well as lost tax revenue. It has been estimated that dropouts represent $320 billion in lost lifetime earnings potential, which hurts employers and is a drag on competitiveness.

Clearly, new approaches are needed.

Communities in Schools of Pennsylvania applies research, evaluation, staff training and measures of ongoing improvement to the problem, going directly into schools, working proactively with administrators, principals and staff members. We assess needs and collaborate with other nonprofits and service providers to deliver resources to the most at-risk students.

The organization's mission is simple: Surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.

This community and its services -- which include tutors, food banks, family counselors, college visits, job shadowing and health care -- adheres to a structured model designed to remove barriers to learning and meet the dropout crisis head on.

This evidence-based strategy creates an environment in which adults and children develop healthy one-on-one relationships -- a critical component in curtailing the dropout rate. Graduation rates have increased as a result of a higher percentage of students reaching proficiency in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math.

The broader payoff is worth noting, too. For every dollar spent on CISPA programming, a community can expect to see more than $11 in benefits, according to an economic study by Economic Modeling Specialists Intl.

By serving more than 24,000 students -- that is, potential dropouts -- in 2011, CISPA is moving the needle, helping to stop students from dropping out and alleviating a costly burden on social programs and prisons.

A generation ago, dropouts were not viewed as society's problem. Today, we understand that everyone suffers because of the dropout epidemic. The more dropouts, the greater the social and economic challenges cities and states face, from lost earnings to welfare and medical costs. Today's graduates will pay for those who drop out, those who will never attain the education and skills needed to help fuel economic growth.

Yes, it's summertime, but the issue of dropouts isn't on vacation.

opinion_commentary

Nathan Mains is president and state director of Communities in Schools of Pennsylvania (nmains@cis-pa.org).


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