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Editorial: No quick fix on dropouts

If the first step in solving a problem is moving from denial to acknowledgment, maybe we’ve at least taken a couple of steps down the road to dropout recovery.
At a national summit last year on the dropout crisis, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings chided education officials for long masking the problem by using computation methods that significantly understated the number of dropouts. Here’s how well the problem had been disguised. According to national surveys, the general public believed that close to 90 percent of students graduate from high school. The reality is that, nationwide, roughly a third of students fail to graduate with their class.
“I think you have to be honest with the people,” N.C. Gov. Mike Easley told summit attendees.
Honesty can be painful, and the whole state should be wincing from the graduation statistics released this week. Statewide, a stunning 23,550 N.C. students left public schools without graduating. Of those, 380 were in the Rowan-Salisbury School System, representing 5.47 percent of ninth-12th graders (compared to a statewide rate of 5.24 percent). Grim though those figures may be, they could be eclipsed later this year when a second set of dropout statistics is released, tracking the number of students in a freshman class who actually graduate four years later. If earlier estimates hold true, those figures may show that as many as one in three students don’t graduate with their class, although some may later get GEDs or enroll in community college courses.
Obviously, this is much larger than a local or state problem. The high school brain drain is a national epidemic, and while it may be statistically skewed toward minority groups, it underscores a cultural paradox of 21st century America. The teens and tweeners who comprise the most plugged-in, interconnected and technologically sophisticated generation in history are compiling dropout rates more in keeping with the days of transistor radios and rabbit ears. How can it be that so many students are tuned in on one level and utterly disengaged on another? Even if you redesign curriculum, how do you overhaul sectors of society where poverty and low educational levels are the socioeconomic equivalents of hypertension and heart disease, passed down through successive generations?
That’s a question that bedevils educators, even as they bring online a host of anti-dropout initiatives, ranging from expanded preschool programs to enhanced vocational training and alternative high schools. Along with those school-based approaches, RSS Superintendent Judy Grissom pointed to the most urgently needed intervention when she noted that “parents need to make sure their children are at school every day, ready to learn.”
Schools and education advocates are acknowledging the severity of the dropout problem and taking action. But devising academic strategies is far easier than inspiring shifts in parental and community attitudes. It’s not just students who are disengaged; a lot of moms and dads are, too. Until they tune in and embrace the value of education and the importance of daily attendance, the road to dropout recovery will be riddled with potholes and muddy ruts.

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