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Locating the Dropout Crisis

Susan Notes: The pattern of students who do not receive high school diplomas is alarming and mostly ignored.

Which High Schools Produce the Nation'a Dropouts?

Where Are They Located?

Who Attends Them?

Imagine a nation in which all students, from Benton Harbor to Watts, from Akron to Baltimore, from Chicago's South side to rural South Carolina, routinely graduate from high school ready and prepared to succeed in college or advanced post-secondary training. Imagine the social and economic implications of being able to say to any child, in any locale in the United States, you will be provided with a high school that will educate you, challenge you, care for you, support you, and graduate you ready to compete and succeed in the world.

Fifty years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, the image of public high schools providing all youth with equal opportunity to receive a high quality education remains inspiring and compelling. Current reality, however, offers a much more troubled picture. In each of the locations listed above, half or more of high school students do not graduate, let alone leave high school prepared to fully participate in civic life. It is no coincidence that these locales are gripped by high rates of unemployment, crime, ill health, and chronic despair. For many in these and other areas, the only real and lasting pipeline out of poverty in modern America, a solid high school education followed by post secondary schooling or training, is cracked and broken.

Consider the central findings of this study:

  • Nearly half of our nation�s African American students, nearly 40% of Latino students, and only 11% of white students attend high schools in which graduation is not the norm.
  • Between 1993 and 2002, the number of high schools with the lowest levels of success in promoting freshmen to senior status on time (a strong correlate of high dropout and low graduation rates) increased by 75%, compared with only an 8% increase in the total number of high schools.
  • There are currently between 900 and 1,000 high schools in the country in which graduating is at best a 50/50 proposition. In 2,000 high schools, a typical freshman class shrinks by 40% or more by the time the students reach their senior year. This represents nearly one in five regular or vocational high schools in the U.S. that enroll 300 or more students.
  • A majority minority high school is five times more likely to have weak promoting power (promote 50% or fewer freshmen to senior status on time) than a majority white school.
  • Poverty appears to be the key correlate of high schools with weak promoting power. Majority minority high schools with more resources (e.g., selective programs, higher per pupil expenditures, suburban location) successfully promote students to senior status at the same rate as majority white schools.
  • The majority of high schools with weak promoting power are located in northern and western cities and throughout the southern states.
  • High schools with the worst promoting power are concentrated in a sub-set of states. Nearly 80% of the nation�s high schools that produce the highest number of dropouts can be found in just 15 states (Arizona, California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas).
  • While only 20% of high schools that enroll more than 300 students are located in large and medium-sized cities, 60% of the nation�s high schools with the lowest levels of promoting power are found in these cities.
  • Many cities have high concentrations of high schools with weak promoting power. In half of the nation�s largest 100 cities, 50% or more of high school students who attend regular or vocational high schools with more than 300 students attend high schools with weak promoting power. In some cities, students have virtually no other choice but to attend a high school with weak promoting power.
  • More than half of African American students in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania attend high schools in which the majority of students do not graduate on time, if at all. African American students in these states are up to 10 times more likely to attend a high school with very weak promoting power, high dropout and low graduation rates than white students.
  • Five southern states--Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas-- collectively lead the nation in both total number and level of concentration of high schools with weak promoting power. These findings are a chilling reminder of how much further we need to go to truly realize the vision of Brown. They are also a call to action. We must no longer tolerate the squandered potential, limited life chances, and social malaise that result from poorly educating our nation�s youth. Increasing momentum for high school reform is a promising development but must not become a passing fad. With sustained commitment and judicious use of resources, transforming the American high school will be a powerful vehicle to achieving a more just and prosperous society.

    The work of Carolyn Henry Barber, our chief research assistant on the project has been invaluable. Her mastery of the data set, and the intelligence and speed with which she was able to process our many requests, was phenomenal and deeply appreciated. We also thank Chris West, Barbara Colton, and Gregg Howell for their assistance in producing this report. We are grateful for the Harvard Civil Rights Project�s efforts to shepherd this research through its many phases and for helping it make a difference. Finally, we want to acknowledge the teachers and students whose daily struggle to provide and receive a good high school education inspired us to conduct this research in the first place.

    For the report, go to the url below.

    — Robert Belfanz and Neetie Legters
    Center for Social Organizations of Schools/Johns Hopkins University



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