Boston Globe | September 9, 2008
MILLIONS OF American students are back in high school, and before the year is done more than 1.1 million will drop out. In many of the nation’s cities and low-wealth rural districts, 40 to 60 percent of entering freshman will not graduate. The suburbs are no longer immune.
Retired general Colin Powell, founding chairman of the America’s Promise Alliance, has called this a “national catastrophe.” It’s an expensive one, with a price tag of more than $150 billion for each cohort of dropouts who are more likely to be in poor health, living in poverty, or receiving public assistance. They are three times more likely to be unemployed, and eight times more likely to be incarcerated.
Yet there is hope. The dropout crisis is solvable. It’s a matter of getting the right interventions to the right students at the right time.
We know where help is needed most. Research shows 15 percent of high schools produce more than 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts. Students starting at these 2,000 high schools typically come from middle schools at which children are already falling off the graduation track.
We know who needs help the most. As early as the sixth grade, students at risk of dropping out can be identified by three “off-track” indicators: poor attendance; disruptive behavior or lack of effort; and course failure, particularly in math or English. In high-poverty environments, up to 75 percent of sixth- to ninth-grade students with even one off-track indicator do not graduate high school.
We know how to get them back on track. Research tells us that continuous support from trained and dedicated adults working as tutors, mentors, monitors, and problem solvers works. In combination with the transformation of the secondary schools that produce most of the dropouts and increased wraparound supports for the neediest students, these additional adults working closely with skilled teachers and administrators are the key to ending the dropout crisis.
Superintendents on the front lines agree. According to Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, “Improving what is going on in the classroom is an important piece of the equation, but that alone is not the answer. The answer is a combination of much greater rigor in the classroom, and a heck of a lot more support. . . . People who are going to be there and help them be successful.”
We know this works because we’ve seen it work. “Our team of diverse, trained, and dedicated City Year AmeriCorps members helped raise test scores, lower suspension rates, and reduce classroom disruptions,” said principal Sharif El-Mekki of Philadelphia. “They also bring things that cannot be taught: compassion, consistency, and a desire to serve.”
How can we ensure this level of support in the several thousand schools in which the dropout crisis is concentrated? The answer is national service. A National Education Corps of 100,000 trained young adults should be established. That is the level of person-power necessary to get the job done.
Young people want to serve on the front lines addressing America’s greatest challenges. They can be the skilled and idealistic force ensuring that students falling off the graduation path get the adult support they need: making sure they come to school; helping them fulfill their assignments; providing enriching extended day activities; and serving as positive “near peer” role models for perseverance and good behavior.
National service is a cost-effective solution. The maximum federal cost of a full-time AmeriCorps member is $12,600 plus a $4,725 scholarship.
The next president and Congress can make a National Education Corps a reality. When it comes to dropping out, it is time for stepping up.
Dr. Robert Balfanz, a research scientist, is co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Michael Brown is CEO and cofounder of City Year.
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