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Summit Drills In on America’s Dropout Rate

In the United States, a student drops out of school every 26 seconds and more than 3,000 children leave school every day.

In response to this national crisis, Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, established the Grad Nation campaign to stem the tide. Their nonprofit, America’s Promise Alliance, has been instrumental in building capacity to reverse the problem.

On Monday, Feb. 25, more than 1,000 educators, corporate executives, researchers, foundations, policymakers, education advocates and others gathered in uptown Washington, D.C., to spend three days focused on the problem, vowing to bump up the nation’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020.

In his remarks to open the Building a Grad Nation Summit, Gen. Powell crystallized the job at hand.

“We have no more important task than education of our children,” he said. And in a letter signed jointly by Powell and his wife, the couple said: “Year after year, class after class, America still is needlessly losing too much of the talent and potential of our young people to the high school dropout epidemic.

“In other words, we have not fulfilled our promise to our children.”

According to the Powell Report, which was released early during the summit, the national high school graduation rate is currently 78.2 percent and one of every five students do not graduate high school with their compatriots. In addition, 25 percent of African-American students and 20 percent of Latinos still attend high schools where graduating is not the norm. Among students who do make it to college 20 percent require remedial courses and significant numbers end up not earning a college degree. Meanwhile, it’s clear that well over half of the new jobs that will become available in the next decade will require some postsecondary education.

“National leaders in the past have set up goals and not met them,” said John Bridgeland, CEO and president of Civic Enterprises. “And three successive presidents after the Nation at Risk report was published challenged the nation to reach the 90 percent goal.”

“This is like being in the Super Bowl, being up by two touchdowns and the lights go out,” he added.

Yet, in the midst of these sobering statistics was good news.

Bridgeland said the number of dropouts continues to fall with a 5 percent decrease in the dropout rate, and, for the first time, the nation is on pace to reach the 90 percent goal. In addition, the number of high schools graduating 60 percent or fewer students—also known as “dropout factories”—declined by 23 percent. And speakers said they were encouraged that about 800,000 fewer students now attend these “dropout factories.”

It’s estimated that, if 90 percent of American students are graduating from high school, this translates into a $5.6 billion increase in the gross domestic product.

During a break in the session, D.C. educator Delores Gomez said summits of this type are extremely important.

“We’re always learning from each other,” she said. “I just saw some colleagues and I’m learning about what’s happening where they are. Expanding and exchange of information is critical. I think there is the political and social will. All of us want to be change agents. If we collaborated more and worked together, it would be easier.”

A number of speakers reiterated the reality that graduation rates differ according to the race, ethnicity, family income, disabilities and English-language proficiency. All said these graduation gaps imperil the progress young people should be enjoying.

One area where schools have fallen short is in retaining students with disabilities. Tim Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics, expressed his concerns during a panel discussion and in a subsequent interview.

“The report is mostly good news but kids with disabilities are dropping out at twice the rate of other students,” he said. “We need to build an environment where kids fit in, are safe and are engaged in learning. This is not an issue of how we teach math and English … we can do something about it. Social and emotional factors have to be addressed.

“Kids are more than capable of doing the work but they don’t feel connected. Children feel a sense of isolation and not fitting in. The reason to stay in school is to fulfill a dream.”

Former First Lady Laura Bush, a one-time elementary school teacher, recalled her work in inner-city communities in Texas.

“I wasn’t prepared for the poverty I encountered,” she said. “Children came to school hungry with their bellies grumbling and they would ravenously attack the food we gave them. It was an uphill fight although we wanted to help them. My time in Houston and Dallas schools was the most challenging and rewarding.”

Bush said children’s academic struggles are often compounded by self-consciousness and peer pressure, but she added that middle schools are the best places to prepare students for high school. “We’re all here because we know the critical need we have and the dropout crisis. Their disappearance from civic life affects us all … the educational challenges we face in America are great, but greater still is our love for our children.”

The business community, civic organizations and nonprofits are playing a pivotal role in helping to lower the dropout rate. Representatives used the forum to announce new initiatives. Charlene Lake, a senior executive at AT&T for example, revealed that the company has invested $250 million in initiatives to help students graduate, and, during the lunch session, she announced an additional $1 million donation.  

John Gomperts, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, was effusive.

“This is a great opportunity to bring people together to hear about the progress we’ve made,” he said. “People are inspired, sharing ideas and information for actions.”

With a range of issues being spotlighted and thrashed out, Gomperts said, resolve among the conferees is built up.

“It makes people think they’re part of something big and important. It’s the same with every movement,” he said. “Talking to people is immensely profitable. There’s a spiritual aspect to this—being with a group of people who share your passion, which can energize and motivate you.”

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