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Colin Powell, Educators Focus on High School Dropout Epidemic

WASHINGTON— If America’s high school dropout problem is a patient in critical condition, his situation has improved in recent years but still not enough to move him out of intensive care.

That’s one of the messages conveyed by a new report released Tuesday by America’s Promise Alliance, the Washington-based national youth advocacy group founded by retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin Powell.

The report — titled Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic — found that the number of dropout factories — the phrase used to describe high schools where 40 percent or more of the students fail to graduate — has dropped from 2,007 in 2002 to 1,746 in 2008.

Powell said the report shows that “there’s still a long way to go.”

“We should not underestimate the difficulties that are ahead,” Powell said at the report’s official release, held at the Gallup World Headquarters in Washington.

Education officials, advocates and experts at the event sounded similar themes, pointing out that despite the progress made in curtailing the number of dropout factories in the nation, the dropout problem continues to persist most in high-poverty urban school districts.

“We still don’t have one high poverty urban school district with a graduation rate over 75 percent,” said report co-author Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. “They’re still not even at the C-plus level.”

The report, which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described as “required reading,” provides insight regarding some of the obstacles facing the Obama Administration’s college-completion agenda, particularly its quest to restore America to its former position as the most college-educated nation in the world.

The report found that success in lowering the dropout rate was uneven across the nation, with most of the decline in dropout factory schools — 216 of the 261 fewer dropout factories — taking place in the South, led by Texas and Georgia. Further, most of the decline in dropout factory schools — 205 — took place in suburbs and towns, whereas school districts in or near cities experienced only a net decline of 38 dropout factory schools.

Among the strategies and tactics the report credits with improving the graduation rate were strong leadership, clear graduation goals, multisector collaboration, innovation and support and technical assistance for research-based solutions.

The report also calls for greater emphasis on “early warning” systems to provide more community-based supports for off-track students, raising expectations and standards and better parent engagement.

Some at the America’s Promise event said that while the focus on getting more students to graduate from high school is crucial, the bigger issue is making sure that students graduate with a high school diploma that signifies they are ready for college.

“Even kids graduating from high school, somewhere upwards of 40 to 50 percent of kids in urban areas need remediation when they go to college,” said Chad Wick, CEO of KnowledgeWorks, an education company that works with schools throughout the nation to implement innovation and reform.

“They’re essentially taking high school courses in college,” Wick said. “And so we need to really look at the fact that a high school diploma alone is not necessarily going to change things unless we make that stand for something that means kids are really ready to go to college and succeed in college.”

The event featured an array of heavy hitters on America’s education landscape. Among them was outgoing New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who said America’s dropout problem will persist until each school in the nation has been reformed to the point where society’s more fortunate would find them suitable for their own children.

“This is a collective issue,” Klein said. “The future of our country depends on it.”

The lone youth panelist at the event recounted the role that an administrator at a Boys & Girls Club in Cleveland played in her decision to stay in school and ultimately go on to college.

While working several jobs to help her single mother make ends meet for her and her four siblings, Maria Hernandez said she often felt like giving up on high school. But when she started learning more about financial aid for college and the Boys & Girls Club administrator related her plight to a teacher who agreed to pay her tuition, Hernandez decided to stay in school.

She is now a freshman at East Tennessee State University double-majoring in biochemistry and Spanish.

“Because of that,” Hernandez said of the help she got from the Boys & Girls Club and one of her teachers, “I’m a student making my dreams come true.”

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