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High School Dropout Problem “About Class and Race,” Says Summit Participant


With only half of minority students graduating high school on time, U.S. secondary schools need more funding, rigor and accountability to address the “silent epidemic” of school dropouts, national and community activists said at a special Washington, D.C., conference Wednesday.

Organized by MTV, the National Governors Association, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, this “national summit” sought answers to a dropout dilemma that prevents many African-American, Hispanic and American Indian students from ever accessing higher education. While policymakers offered plans to improve a lackluster track record, it was a group of students and community activists who provided stark pictures of the problem.

“I’m sick and tired of being ‘sick and tired,’” said Alberto Retana, an inner-city Los Angeles community organizer. He called the urban dropout problem a “loud and disastrous social dynamic” that primarily is “about class and about race.”

Retana said he organized Los Angeles students and parents to push for more rigorous courses. In some high-poverty schools, there were far more courses in cosmetology than chemistry, he noted. Through his organization, Community Coalition of South Los Angeles, Retana promoted universal access to college prep classes. “The main voices missing [in school improvement] are students, parents and the community,” he said.

Among students nationwide, about one-third do not graduate with their classes, organizers said. But the higher, 50 percent rate among minority students is particularly troubling because of demographic trends and the concentration of these dropouts in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Overall, 15 percent of the nation’s high schools – primarily in urban areas – produce half of all dropouts.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings bluntly presented similar facts in her summit appearance. “In too many of our cities, the reality faced by minority and low-income kids is shocking,” she said, labeling many inner-city high schools as “dropout factories.

“A majority of the students trapped in them are minorities, and their high school experience looks vastly different from what most kids encounter.”

Another problem is the way school districts classify dropouts. In some districts, a student is only an official “dropout” if he or she registers as such. “No wonder this epidemic has been so silent,” she added.

Participants offered several suggestions to address this crisis:

§                     Funding: Spellings recommended $1 billion more for the federal Title I education program to help low-income high schools. 

§                     Accountability: Summit organizers said the nation’s governors have pledged to develop a common definition of the term “dropout.” To help educate families, they also will release an online resource with the on-time graduation rates for every school district nationwide.

§                     Teacher training: Schools of education must give all teachers a stronger grounding in math and science. Even prospective elementary teachers need required coursework in these subjects so they can better help students, said Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri. “There’s a complete disconnect” on this issue, he added.

In some cases, students are leading reform efforts. Jazmin Roman, a 15-year-old student at Chicago’s Roosevelt High School, described her community organizing efforts to improve schools. Only about one-third of 600 Roosevelt freshmen typically graduate in four years, but many would stay in school with more rigorous courses and support services. “We all want changes in our schools,” she said.

–Charles Dervarics

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