How to Reduce the Dropout Rate

Published September 1, 1999

“It is devastating to have children who are being allowed to drop out of school without any intervention. They just float out of school. We have millions of them in our society, on our streets, in our penal institutions, and on our welfare rolls because they haven’t acquired a high school education.”
Anthony Trujillo
Former Superintendent
Ysleta School District, El Paso, Texas

Make Dropouts Count

Trujillo reduced Ysleta’s dropout rate by making dropouts part of his evaluation of high school and middle school principals. Eventually, he reduced dropout rates to the point where he would no longer ask how many but who–“Who in your school dropped out this year?” His next question would be: “What did you do personally to try to prevent it?”

Put Dropouts in Jail

Since 1994, tribal law in New Mexico’s Sandia Pueblo has required students to finish high school, get their GED, or appear before the council with their parents. Students may attend public schools or use casino-funded scholarships to attend private and parochial schools.

When 17-year-old Karen Montoya dropped out of school in 1996 without earning her GED, that decision landed the teenager and her mother in the Sandoval County jail on contempt-of-court charges for not complying with the law. According to Albuquerque Journal reporter Andrea Schoellkopf, Montoya had to agree to complete the GED exam in order to get out of jail.

Make the Curriculum Relevant

Christian Science Monitor reporter Pila Martinez recently recounted how a new charter school in Tucson, Arizona, had succeeded in lowering the dropout rate of the native American students who attend the school, apparently by engaging the interest of the students in their own native culture. The school, the Ha:Sañ (HAH-shun) Preparatory and Leadership School, focuses on educating students from the Tohono O’odham Nation, using a bicultural curriculum that combines classic academics and tribal tradition. Tribal elders teach some classes, math and English are taught along with ancient songs, and the only foreign language offered is Tohono O’odham.

Make School Compulsory

According to the Education Commission of the States, 29 states require schooling through age 16, nine require it through age 17, and 12 require it though age 18. In June, a New York Senate Committee gave final approval to a bill that would raise the state’s mandatory school age to 17, bringing the rest of the state into line with the law in New York City.

In April, a Louisiana Senate Education Committee unanimously approved a proposal to compel students to stay in school until their 18th birthday and allow those between 17 and 18 to drop out of school only with their parents’ consent. Previously, students could drop out once they reached their 17th birthday but parental consent was required for those wanting to drop out between 16 and 17.

Pay Students to Stay in School

Starting this month, the British government will attempt to lower the high school dropout rate by paying students from poor families up to $65 a week to stay in school after they reach the age of 16. Currently, some 15 percent of Britain’s students drop out of school once they reach that age.

A similar School-to-Work program in Arlington, Texas, pays flunking students an hourly wage to earn summer school credit. The program, made available as a federal grant to remediate students who failed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, pays students $5.25 an hour if they attend at least 90 percent of the class days. A student who fails is not prohibited from receiving the hourly wage.

“Do we have so much money that we can now pay students to attend school with no accountability for their performance?” marveled John C. Bowman, research director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Give Dropouts Training Grants

Last November, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo announced $33.1 million in grants to local governments, housing authorities, and nonprofit groups to train nearly 2,300 high school dropouts aged 16-24 to build and renovate low-income housing and support themselves as construction workers.

The program, called Youthbuild, helps the dropouts get GEDs and provides social services and training in leadership skills. More than $170 million in Youthbuild grants have been made since 1993, enabling over 7,800 young people to take part in building or rehabbing 3,650 houses and apartments in their communities.

There is some irony in the fact that so many high schools dispensed with the shop programs that would have provided the dropouts with the skills they are now learning with the aid of government grants.

Reduce School Transfers

In a study published last December, researchers at the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus concluded that teens who change schools are much more likely to drop out than those who stay at the same school during their high school careers.

For white students, those who transferred more than once had a graduation rate of only 62 percent, compared to 83 percent for those who transferred once and 96 percent for those who stayed at one high school. Comparable figures for Latino students were 60 percent, 63 percent, and 89 percent respectively. For urban Latino students, the graduation rate fell to 30 percent for those who made more than one school change.

Suspend Driver’s License

Earlier this year, two Arizona lawmakers proposed taking away driving privileges for underage high school dropouts, an idea already in effect in several other states, including Kentucky and North Carolina. If a student dropped out, school officials would inform the state driver’s license division, which would then suspend the student’s license. North Carolina’s 1997 law took effect last September, requiring that dropouts give up their driving privileges.

The U.S. Department of Education may halt the practice, arguing that releasing academic records to a third party without specific parental consent is a violation of the federal Family Education and Right to Privacy Act.

Fake the Numbers

According to a July 3 report by Austin American-Statesman reporter Michael Kurtz, County Attorney Ken Oden has found reason to “suspect intentional fraud” in reporting of the Austin school district’s dropout rates.

The question is whether the schools kept their dropout numbers low by deliberately reporting incorrect information about students who were no longer in school. At one school, 317 students from the 1996-97 school year did not enroll the following fall but were not reported as graduates or dropouts. This kept the school’s dropout rate less than the 6 percent threshold that would have caused the state to label the school as “low-performing.”