The Crisis: Graduation Rate Under 70% For Low Income Youth

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This is where we steer many of our youth with abysmal education


The concert hall was packed with people of all ages and races. The crowd hushed and everyone collectively leaned in as Aaron Golden took the stage.

Words flowed from him like water from a tap, coming fast and washing over the crowd. This young man, a teenager from Detroit, was one of five winners of the Raise Up poetry competition. His story was one of hundreds submitted by youth from all over the country who are speaking out and sharing their perspective on America’s dropout crisis through rap and spoken word.

I try to be an informed person, and I am generally aware of the challenges in our education system. Even before hearing from these young poets, I had read the statistics. I knew that despite improvements, one in five young people dropout every year.

Intellectually I understood that this was a greater problem for low-income students, and especially young people of color. That on average, the graduation rate among African-American and Hispanic students is under 69 percent, and that up to a third of students from low-income families are failing to graduate in a significant number of states.

Statistics can tell us a lot, but they can also sterilize the truth. They cannot help us understand the struggle that Jonathan Williams faced as he balanced demands at school while living with absent parents in a home without electricity. They do not reveal the barriers that Sarah O’Neal faced when, as a third-grader, she tested into a math program for gifted students and was told that it would be better for a “kid like her” to stick with the classes she was used to.

They cannot fully illuminate the experience shared by the young men in the Get Lit Players Group, who shared stories of riding trains and buses for hours, through dangerous territories, just to get to school on time.

There are real costs associated with our unwillingness to address these challenges in a meaningful way. Lives are lost and communities suffer because we have failed to respond. Again, the statistics make it coldly clear we know that graduates are more likely to be employed, to earn higher taxable incomes, and to generate jobs than those without a high school diploma. They are also less likely to engage in criminal behavior or receive social services.

These young poets shared stories of success within a system filled with obstacles stacked so high that it seemed designed to keep them from graduation. We are right to celebrate them. But we should also take note. It is wrong to place the whole of this responsibility on the pluck and drive of individual students. It is their job to work hard in school, but it is our job to cultivate the soil in which they will attempt to grow. It is our duty to ensure that we don’t simply prescribe every higher standard of learning, without addressing the opportunity gap in our schools. It is our responsibility to take seriously the health of our communities, including those far from our homes.

We have an opportunity to do something about the dropout crisis, starting with the November elections where representatives from local school boards to the U.S. Congress will be determined.

Our officials need to know that we take personally our responsibility to provide a quality education for every child, no matter where they live, what they look like, or how much their parents earn. The youth are speaking out. Now it’s our turn to raise our voices.


Jessie Palatucci is the online communications specialist for the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries.

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