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Editorial: Farm system for jail system

Despite all the talk about global competitiveness and the need for job skills, more than 1 million students decide each year that they don’t need to graduate from high school. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says the result is clear. “It’s a farm system for the jail system,” Powell said.
The America’s Promise Alliance headed by Powell is holding 100 dropout prevention summits around the country to curb the dropout rate. Coming on the heels of a national summit on the same subject last year and several pertinent reports, the alliance might move this issue from the talking stage to the action stage.
Some legal action might make a difference, too. In a first in the nation, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit in March demanding that the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida boost its graduation rates and reduce the gaps in those rates between racial and socioeconomic groups. The district claims a graduation rate of 71.4 percent under Florida’s reporting system, but the suit says the problem is worse than that. And the reported rate for whites is 29 percentage points higher than that of African Americans.
Change is essential. In about 1,700 high schools nationwide, no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year ó more than one in 10, according to an analysis of Education Department data conducted by Johns Hopkins. One researcher called these schools “dropout factories.”
Those factories are churning out young people who will be predisposed to teen pregnancy, substance abuse, crime and low wages. In 2000, male and female college graduates earned $42,292 and $32,238 respectively, while male and female high school dropouts earned $19,225 and $11, 583 respectively. Seventy-five percent of America’s state prison inmates are high school dropouts.
Despite uniformity of concern, actual dropout rates are viewed with a leery eye, since states calculate them differently and often in a way that masks the real problem. In some districts, a student who leaves school is counted as a dropout only if he registers as one. In others, a student is counted as a graduate if he promises to get a GED. Fortunately, action is finally taking place in that area, too. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced recently that she would take steps to ensure all states use the same formula to calculate how many students graduate on time, and how many drop out. The data is to be public so people nationwide can compare how students of every race, background and income level are performing.
That’s a good first step. After figuring out what the rate really is, the next step will be to take action to bring it down. Young people have too much potential ó and too much to lose ó to settle for business as usual. By providing more challenging, relevant high school education and extra support to graduate, schools can increase students’ chances of lifelong success. We may never completely shut down dropout factories and the jail farm system, but we can slow them down.

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