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‘Building a Grad Nation’ report reveals what’s at stake in our schools…

December 3, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( Earlier this week, an 88-page report titled Building a Grad Nation, was released by the educational foundation, America’s Promise. America’s Promise was founded by General Colin Powell, and is currently chaired by his wife, Alma Powell, and the foundation tasks itself with bringing coalitions together, corporations, non-profits, and teachers organizations, to figure out ways to improve American education. Building a Grad Nation studies the state by state progression toward increasing the graduation rates for American high school students, while analyzing how and why students are either succeeding or failing.

The overall numbers in the report show that the high school dropout rate has been reduced in all racial demographics, with the cumulative graduation rate being increased from 72 percent to 75 percent during the period of 2001 to 2008. But African Americans still substantially lag behind whites and Asians in terms of graduating from high school. According to the study, the African American high school students have a 62 percent graduation rate, behind every other racial group in the country. Native Americans and Hispanics graduate at 64 percent, whites at 81 percent, and Asians lead with a graduation rate at 91 percent.

The report also focuses on the reduction of high school drop out factories, which are defined as being schools where less than 60 percent of high school freshmen are still enrolled in high school four years later. From 2002 to 2008, the number of these schools was reduced from 2,007 to 1,766, and that is good news. But when you dig deeper, you see that drop out factories are typically centered in dense urban areas, with high minority populations and a lower socio-economic demographic, the very places where the majority of African-American students attend school.

On the macro level, Building a Grad Nation doesn’t really break new ground when it comes to recommendations for creating successful students who graduate, beyond the typical suggestions of early intervention in the middle school years, evaluating the effectiveness of teachers, active parental involvement, high expectations and standards. It was all pretty pro forma. But it’s when you look at specific regions, and the efforts to create educational change, that you find solutions that may be able to be applied to African-American students.

For example, the South had significant success in reducing the number of drop out factories. From 2004 to 2008 in Alabam, there was a three-fold increase in the number of African-American students who took the ACT exam for college, and their scores doubled during that time period. And the overall graduation rate moved from 62 percent to 69 percent, a seven percent rise that was one of the tops in the nation.
Yet in urban areas, where most African American students attend high school, the drop out results were mixed. Chicago saw substantial improvements, Los Angeles was stagnant, and Las Vegas regressed. But New York stood out as a large urban area where students responded to changes.

New York saw their overall graduation rates rise an average of 10 percent with students attending high school for four and five year periods. And while African-Americans students in New York still lagged behind other races in graduating, on par with national trends, there is reason for hope that those trends are slowly being reversed.

One reason cited in the report is the break up of large New York City neighborhood schools into smaller schools with smaller classes. The idea is that these larger neighborhood schools often become drop out factories, and are harder to change, than the smaller schools. And by making the school populations smaller, you’re also able to support both the school and the students more efficiently.

These smaller high schools were overwhelmingly filled with lower income African-American and Hispanic youth, close to 80 percent. Yet by creating smaller schools, New York has been able to reduce the number of African-American students attending high school drop out factories from 68 percent to 45 percent. New York school officials hope these schools will continue to improve the education of African-Americans by providing more personal attention, they will be able to break the cycle between high poverty and a poor education.

During his 2009 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared a national goal of a graduation rate of 90 percent by 2020. Progress is being made, but not fast enough or substantial enough for African American students. Too often, black students are automatically flowing into drop out factories with decades of failure codified into their DNA. In order to make change, it will take more than simply encouraging and supporting these students, but by changing the urban educational structure itself.

Written By Lawrence C. Ross

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