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High School Dropouts: The Silent Epidemic
By George E. Curry
Mar 13, 2006

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If you listen carefully, you still can’t hear it. It’s the sound of a third of high school students dropping out before receiving their diploma. For people of color, the figure is almost 50 percent and that has profound implications not only for the students, but for the society that failed them.

“The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts” is an important report on the dropout problem told from the viewpoints of true experts – the students themselves. The study, which focuses on polling and focus groups, is a joint project by the Civic Enterprises and Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2003, about 3.5 million youth 16 to 25 did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school.

The report begins with “An Open Letter to the American People” that gets directly to the point: “There is a high school dropout epidemic in America. Each year, almost one third of all public high school students – and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans – fail to graduate from public high school with their class. Many of these students abandon school with less than two years to complete their high school education.”

And society has plenty of reasons to care.

“The decision to drop out is a dangerous one for the student,” the report continued. “Dropouts are much more likely than their peers who graduate to be unemployed, living in poverty, receiving public assistance, in prison, on death row, unhealthy, divorced and single parents with children who drop out from high school themselves.”

The report on this silent epidemic allows us to listen to what those who quit say about their predicament.

“The central message of this report is that while some students drop out because of significant academic challenges, most dropouts are students who could have, and believe they could have, succeeded in school,” the study said. “This survey of young people who left high school without graduating suggests that, despite career aspirations that require education beyond high school and a majority having grades of C or better, circumstances in students’ lives and an inadequate response to those circumstances from the schools led to dropping out.”

We tend to think of high school dropouts as being incapable of handling the academic workload and there is some evidence that supports that view. For example, 35 percent of those polled said “failing in school” was a major factor in the decision to drop out. And 32 percent had repeated a grade before dropping out.

Nearly half of the former students – 47 percent – quit not because of the academic challenge, but because they found classes uninteresting.

“These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school,” the report said. “Almost as many (42 percent) spent time with people who were not interested in school. These were among the top reasons selected by those with high GPAs and by those who said they were motivated to work hard.”

An even larger number of students – 69 percent – said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard. In fact, two-thirds said they would have worked harder had it been required of them.

Naturally, there were other real life factors that caused some students to drop out. Approximately a third said they had to get a job and make more money, 26 percent said they became a parent and 22 percent said they had to care for a family member.

It became clear that the decision to quit school was not a spur of the moment choice. Rather, it was a culmination of growing disengagement and frequent absences from classes.

There was also a significant number of students who fell behind in the early years and never felt they caught up – or could catch up – with their classmates.

Among the recommendations made in the report:

- Provide a more supportive academic environment at school and at home that would improve the student’s chances of remaining in school;
- Improve the teaching and curricular to make school more relevant and engaging;
- Offering tutoring and summer school for struggling students;
- Operate a more disciplined classroom;
- Make sure that students have a strong relationship with at least one adult in the school and
- Improve communication between parents and schools.


And parents need to improve their communication with their children.

“The majority of parents were ‘not aware’ or just ‘somewhat aware’ of their child’s grades or that they were about to leave school,” the report said. “Nearly half of the respondents said their parents’ work schedule kept them from knowing more about what was happening at school and 68 percent said their parents got more involved when they became aware their child was on the verge of dropping out.”

Clearly, we all need to be more involved.

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