We all know there are many reasons teenagers quit school. Family circumstances, lack of academic success, discipline issues, pregnancy, etc… In all fairness, many people go on obtain a GED or complete alternative school programs and graduate but many don’t. Many readers are already starting to think, I know people who quit high school and are now very successful. Exceptions happen but facts are stubborn things. The Alabama Cooperative Education Service in 2000 points out that failure to complete high school limits lifelong earning potential, makes finding and keeping a job harder, and increases the likelihood of receiving public assistance. No surprise to anyone and no easy answers.
Eliminating the dropout rate is tough but we’ve faced more daunting challenges before. On May 25, 1961 President Kennedy gave the famous “Man on the Moon” speech challenging the nation to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade. In 1969 it happened.
Here’s an excerpt of the President’s speech. “I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.”
President’s Kennedy challenge is in many ways similar to the situation we face today. As a state and nation, we have the resources and talents to tackle this problem but lack the resolve and leadership to do it. It’s time to set a goal to reduce the high school dropout rate to as near zero as possible. Surely there were skeptics in the audience, but President Kennedy’s vision and challenge inspired a nation to action.
This is not a Democrat or Republican issue and I’m not a big fan of government intervention into the lives of Americans but sometimes the problems are bigger than a person or community can solve alone. Here are a few ideas to get us moving in the right direction.
First, the N.C. legislature must pass new legislation replacing the 1907 law requiring compulsory education between the ages of 7-16. That’s right the year 1907, a law clearly written for an agrarian economy and a different world from today’s. The new law should require that children complete high school, a GED or a viable alternative program by age 19, barring extraordinary circumstances.
Second, put our talents and resources behind the law and the schools that educate our children. Do we have enough teachers and classroom space to teach all those who currently dropout? If not, let’s set “an urgent time schedule…” and get it done. We have the money (barely) to keep people in prison; we should be willing to spend money to help them stay out of prison.
Third, the NC State Board of Education must clearly identify the minimum high school educational standard for basic skills needed to be successful in the workplace. Completing an arbitrary number of semester hours translates well for those entering college but is not good enough. What we need is a functional standard that would ensure graduates can read, do basic math, and learn basic problem-solving skills, etc… Not everyone wants to go to college but everyone needs the basic skills to go to work and navigate their way through daily life.
Fourth, getting an education must become a family and community priority. Mom, dad, uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends must encourage and support the idea of getting a high school education. Simple things like making sure your children have the time and space to study, get enough sleep, eat properly and are ready to learn.
We all know the dropout problem is complex, multi-faceted and will take time and real effort to achieve results. Getting a man into space was difficult too but it happened because we had the courage to face unknown challenges and overcome them. We tried without the guarantee of success. I believe that by the end of this decade we can take the high school dropout rate to zero; where are the leaders to take us there?
Ed O’Neal, Jr. is a 1977 graduate of Richmond Senior High and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.