Detroit Has Worst High-School Graduation Rate

A new study from Education Week shows that at least a third of teenagers in the nation are dropping out of school without earning their diplomas. Detroit has the worst rate: Fewer than 25 percent of freshmen go on to graduate.

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Anthony Brooks.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, a summer movie weekend worth waiting for. Three hot movies with great reviews.

BROOKS: First, though, it's graduation season. A lot of kids, though, never make it. A new study shows that a third of high school students don't graduate. It's worse in Detroit, which has the nation's worst graduation rate.

NPR's Celeste Headlee reports.

CELESTE HEADLEE: The state of Michigan doesn't have the country's lowest graduation rate. That honor belongs to South Carolina. But Detroit ranks at the bottom of the 50 largest school districts with less than 25 percent of freshmen going on to graduate. Many state education officials dispute the report's findings.

But Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, says there are fundamental problems with the way some districts track dropouts.

Mr. BOB WISE (President, Alliance for Excellent Education): In one state, for instance, we had 22 different ways to avoid categorizing somebody as a dropout. Another school district required that a student affirmatively enter the principal's office and sign a form saying they were dropping out. And so what happens is a number of kids are just walking out and not being counted.

HEADLEE: In Education Week's study, Cleveland, Baltimore, Dallas and New York City round out the bottom five. Jordan, Utah, is at the top with nearly 89 percent completion. Coincidentally, Utah is the one state that allows school districts to ignore provisions of No Child Left Behind that conflict with educational programs.

Randy McNeil, president of Detroit's Youth Development Commission, says the numbers are shocking but they're not the real issue.

Mr. RANDY MCNEIL (President, Youth Development Commission): Graduation rates are a problem and we shouldn't waste a lot of time and energy debating whose number is the right number. But looking at more, what do we do to make sure that every child that gets into the public school system or any school system comes out as a graduate with the necessary equipment and tools to be successful.

HEADLEE: The study has many education experts wondering what's going wrong in the Detroit public schools. DPS has yet to respond to NPR's requests for a comment. Part of the problem may well be that many students leave the public school system and enroll in charter schools instead.

Leeshay Robinsons'(ph) parents moved her to a charter school a few years ago. Leeshay will enter 11th Grade in the fall and says her new school gives her much more than the public school could.

Ms. LEESHAY ROBINSONS (Charter School Student): In DPS, with the classes being so large, everything is learned as a full group. If one child is having a problem, you can't just sit there with that one child and break it down to them. There's not enough time to do that in DPS because you have 30 students in a class. At charter schools, you only have 17.

HEADLEE: Besides class size, though, some say kids in Detroit and other urban areas no longer have a sense of community. Leeshay Robinsons goes to YouthVille most days after classes. The facility offers training in music and technology along with homework support.

Executive Director Anthony Thompson says he'd rather collaborate with the schools than worry about who's to blame.

Mr. ANTHONY THOMPSON (Executive Director, YouthVille Detroit): If we just say that the Detroit public school system is failing I think we'll miss the boat. It's not just the Detroit public school system. It certainly has to be community and has to be family, and all of those factors must be in place if a person is going to be successful.

HEADLEE: Thompson believes high schools aren't the real problem because elementary schools often fail to prepare students for more advanced curriculum. According to the National Assessment for Education Progress, a test given to fourth and eighth graders, more than 70 percent of eighth graders read below grade level. And that's something Bob Wise says should concern all Americans.

Mr. WISE: Anybody who's sitting smug in a suburban district who thinks that what happens in the urban district doesn't affect them has blinders on.

HEADLEE: Wise says a high school dropout will probably be a tax consumer instead of a taxpayer and is much more likely to be incarcerated. Dropouts also earn about $260,000 less over their lifetime than those who complete high school. Wise says low graduation rates have a real impact on the state's overall economy.

Mr. WISE: In the state of Michigan alone, the estimated additional lifetime income if all the students in the class of 2006 had graduated would be $11 billion, almost $12 billion more than it currently is over their working lifetime. If we could have just improved the graduation rate one half in Michigan, it would have meant a $105 billion more coming in this year to the economy.

HEADLEE: Wise says graduation rates are not taken into consideration in a meaningful way in the No Child Left Behind Act, and he believes this report is solid evidence that NCLB must be amended.

Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Detroit.

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