No job for a high school dropout

Good news is rare. Foreclosures, a credit crunch, and unemployment have sent ripples’ through the economy. Youth unemployment is approaching levels seen during the Great Depression. The nation could use a ray of hope and progress is being made on one issue that deepens unemployment and poverty, the high school dropout epidemic.

Each year, more than 1.2 million students do not graduate. In many communities, dropping out is as likely as graduating, often triggering unemployment, poverty, incarceration and single parenthood.

Fortunately, the nation is responding in cities as well as rural communities.

This week a report will release examining progress in graduation rates in America. Some states and communities are graduating more students in the thousands, even as graduation requirements mount. Eight states have seen graduation rates increase by five percentage points. The percent of minority students attending high schools in which nearly all students graduate has doubled, and 300,000 fewer students across America attend high schools in which as many students drop out as graduate.

A growing number of elected officials believe attacking the dropout crisis should be one of their priorities. Both Colorado and Philadelphia have pledged to cut the dropout rate in half and dozens of other officials are showing similar leadership.

Now is the time for coordinated action. America’s Promise Alliance is leading the charge with 105 ‘dropout summits’ over the next few years. The alliance released a guide on how communities can increase graduation rates by collecting accurate data, implementing school reform’ and sustaining efforts over time.

Governors will continue to play a critical role, as they build systems to track graduation rates, set ambitious’ college readiness goals, and raise compulsory school age laws with new supports for struggling students.

Congress should pass the Graduation Promise Act to improve the 15 percent of high schools that produce over half of all dropouts. The federal government will save $45 billion per high school class in extra tax revenues and lower costs when the dropout rate is cut in half among 20 year olds, representing critical savings as government costs mount for stimulus.

The perspectives of dropouts too give us hope most see the value of a high school diploma, are confident they could have graduated with the right supports, and long for a more engaging and challenging curriculum. Parents of students trapped in low-performing schools are the most likely to see the importance of a rigorous curriculum, and their own involvement.

Our nation has finally woken up to its dropout challenge, and with youth unemployment soaring to new heights and an economy in deep recession, it is not a moment too soon.