Education: Life & Death

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It is very disturbing that today, in the 21st century, in this information age, many African American, Latino and Native American students are dropping out of high school at alarming rates. Indeed, according to a recent study done by The Civil Rights Project of Harvard University, many urban high schools have become "dropout factories" that send "hundreds of students off a figurative cliff" each year. The study found that nationally, only about half of all African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who enter the ninth grade graduate with regular diplomas four years later. Black children of the 21st century will find themselves no better off than those who were denied access to education in the 19th century.

Due to the fact that slaves were denied access to education, African Americans for generations reasured education. Indeed, during the era of slavery, teaching Blacks to read was illegal in many Southern states. Thus, soon after the end of the Civil War, not only were schools established for African Americans, churches and any other available spaces were also used for literacy programs. Black colleges were founded and many families sacrificed greatly to ensure that their children could attend these educational institutions. Quite often, parents realized that education and sports were their children’s only escape routes from poverty and oppression.

So, it is very disturbing that today, in the 21st century, in this information age, many African American, Latino and Native American students are dropping out of high school at alarming rates. Indeed, according to a recent study done by The Civil Rights Project of Harvard University, many urban high schools have become "dropout factories" that send "hundreds of students off a figurative cliff" each year. The study found that nationally, only about half of all African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who enter the ninth grade graduate with regular diplomas four years later. For males of color these figures are even lower. "Schools in some districts are literally hemorrhaging students," said Gary Orfield, editor of the study. He added, "Yet, we continue to invest more funds incarcerating high school dropouts than in the programs that could keep them in school and out of trouble." The Harvard study also found that the statistics reported by many school districts on dropout rates are misleading. Most of us think that if you add the number of dropouts to the number of graduates, you get 100 percent of the students.

But the reality is that some districts assume that missing students are enrolled somewhere else and thus don't count them as dropouts. This allows the district to report a much higher completion rate. Both Texas and California, for instance, report very low dropout rates, but have many students who do not receive diplomas.

Meanwhile, the No Child Left Behind Act puts great pressure on schools to raise test scores, but its provision to include graduation rate accountability is being widely ignored. Thus, school officials are being held accountable for assuring that students take the achievement tests, but not being held accountable for the number of students who simply disappear from their rolls. The Harvard study does maintain that the dropout crisis can be addressed, if we have the political and public will to do so. Targeted interventions could make dramatic differences, particularly for Black and Latino students. For example, the study notes that there are about 2,000 high schools across the nation where graduation is not the norm. Focusing on these schools and how they educate, train and support students could make a significant difference.

Unless students of color complete high school and go on for additional education or training, they will find themselves unable to support themselves and their families in this new information age. Unless we all realize that education must be a priority for all our nation's children, not just for the children of our own families, our nation will not be able to thrive. Black children of the 21st century will find themselves no better off than those who were denied access to education in the 19th century. As their tickets out of poverty would have been lost, their plight in years to come becomes a national tragedy.

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