Wide Disparities in Educational Attainment: Community Focus

While the U.S. has the highest rate of college graduation worldwide, and is ranked second only to Canada in tertiary graduation (post-high schoolmany Canadian youth however complete vocational programs), its rankings for secondary completion are much more dismal, especially for urban and poor youth.
Urban Crime, Unemployment, and High Dropout Rates

Graduation rates in urban high schools hover at around half of what they are in the surrounding suburbs. Graduation rates in major cities range from a high of around 77%the national averageto a low of just under 25% in Detroit, according to a 2008 report in USA Today that examined data from a study by America's Promise Alliance. These rates were calculated based on the number of students who were promoted from grade to grade and completed senior year with their classmates. Possibly a third of those who did not graduate graduated later. Thus half the youth in cities like Detroit never earn diplomas.

Perhaps youth leave school for the streets not because of what urban schools lack but because of what the streets offer: better prospects for dropouts to work as "gang bangers" in drugs and crime than in legitimate business.

In 2005, 36% of urban youth reported some type of gang activity in their schools according to the 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment. Unemployment is highest in border towns, according to U.S. data. In such communities, U.S-based gangs that assist Mexican drug cartels flourish. R. Dellinger cites "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California" (2008) which reported that high school dropouts were 3 1/2 times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested and over than eight times more likely to go to jail or prison. Gang members, according to Robert Yager who photographed them for Time, tend to be disaffected with school and rebellious. Although some schools have served as recruiting areas for gangs, keeping young people in school and focused on a future may be associated with reduced crime.

Gangs: Economic Versus Social Needs

Gang membership among urban youth is not strictly economic. In a world of "ethnic violence," some youth may feel that gang membership brings safety. Gang membership may also be partly an identity issue. Research suggests that at roughly age ten minority youth, who often identify with the majority race/ethnicity as youngsters, reassess their identities.

At this point, minority youth may "foreclose" early on their identitieschoosing to be with peers of like ethnicities and sharing their goalswhile majority youth may continue to explore possible identities a bit longer. Gang banging may be a part of this. However, in controlling turf, fighting and protecting themselves from rival gangs, gangs are also protecting their illegal economic activities. In choosing gang affiliation, youth make choices about their futures, although not perhaps the best ones.

Educational Attainment and Poverty

Comparing data on single parent households at kidscount.org with U.S. census data on poverty, and with data on educational attainment provided by allcountries.org and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that there is a lack of educational attainment among both rural and urban youth in states with high rates of poverty and single parent households. However, since single parent households and poverty go together, it's difficult to decide which is more of a factor in dropping out.

Utah, with single parent households at 18% of the total, then Idaho, then North Dakota, have the lowest percentage of single parent householdsand some of the higher high school graduation rates in the United States, according to kidscount. Utah and North Dakota also have strong economies, with low rates of child poverty.

In Mississippi, with one of the highest rates of child poverty, 45% of children live in single-parent households. Mississippi in the 90s had one of the highest drop-out rates and lowest percentages of high school graduates, according to U.S. census data, although today its drop-out rate is, according to some surveys, surpassed by that of some other southern states (Florida, Georgia, Tennessee) whose drop-out rates have risen since the 90s.* The percentage of high school graduates for young working age adults (25-34) is now lowest in western states (Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California) and Puerto Rico, but still high in several southern states (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina) according to kidscount.

Changing U.S. Demographics and Schools

In the U.S. K-12 students today are increasingly of Hispanic or non-white ancestry. In a number of states, less than half the current school-aged population is white/non-Hispanic. In addition, several states (Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada) have experienced large increases in the percentage of total population that is school-aged. Graduation rates have declined in several of these, Nevada particularly, but also Texas.

Community-Based Solutions?

While graduation rates in rural areas have improved, school systems struggle to accommodate the needs of poor and urban areas. Perhaps more community-based programs are in order. Programs that have reached youth effectively include Head Start (although its long-range success has been debated), and Big Brothers, Big Sisters, a mentoring program begun in 1904 championed by former First Lady Laura Bush. A 1990's studied reported positive outcomes for youth in intervention programs when assigned a big brother or big sister.

Community-based organizations provide job opportunities or training and/or help intervene in violence. The Homeboy Review hopes to provide youth experience in desktop publishing. It's published by Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles which offers job training and experience to urban youth with gang pasts. To submit poetry, short stories, or essays, see the submission guidelines.

Family literacy programsintergenerational programs where the child and his/her family learn together may also be effective. One of the more interesting such programs is the Jane Addams School for Democracy in St. Paul, Minnesota, where diverse groupscollege students, youth, and immigrantswork together on projects or toward personal learning goals.

Finally, options for drop-outs to continue learning include expanding existing partnerships between community colleges and high schools. Community-based programs like these may be some of the best hopes for communities with the high dropout and crime rates associated with poverty, single-parent families, and urbanization.

A Note on the Calculation of Drop-out Rates

* Kidscount reports Mississippi, as of 2007-2008, to be still at the bottom in high school graduation, while other surveys report Mississippi to be at least average for the south. However, Mississipi's drop-out rates for Black and White students are about the same, and are lower than in several other southern states, including Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, according to Forster and Greene, 2003, "Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United State."

Forster and Greene calculate drop-out rates by taking the average number of eighth, ninth, and tenth graders, and comparing this with the number who complete twelfth grade. Forster and Greene's method tries to account for students who move. Although it helps to minimize errors from large numbers or students in ninth grade due to ninth grade repetition, it may lose count of some eighth and even ninth graders, particularly if there is a wide disparity in the number of eighth, ninth, and tenth graders because of a high drop-out rate.

High school drop-out/completion rate calculation methods may not of course adequately account for students who move. Also the number of drop-outs plus completers may not add up to 100%. And, although most surveys claim to report "on-time graduation," students considered to be on-time graduates may actually be students finishing classes from the previous year. There has been an overall decline in graduation rates nationwide according to some data.

Burnett, Gary, "Gangs in Schools," Hawai'i AIDS Education Project Resources. (Accessed 2010/06/28.)
Dellinger, R., "Connection between school dropouts, gangs motivates L.A. youths to lobby in state capitol," catholiconline.org. March 18, 2008. (Accessed 2010/06/28.)
Forster and Greene. "High School Graduation Rate by State and Race" (Table One). In "Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States." Education Working Paper 3: 17. September, 2003. (Accessed 2011.)
Frey, William. America's Diverse Future: Initial Glimpses at the U.S. Child Population from the 2010 Census. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. Brookings Institute. April, 2011. (Accessed 2011.)
History.com, "Gangland: Inside a Gang." 1996 - 2010. (Accessed 2010/06/28.)
kidscount.org "Children in single-parent families (Percent)2008," Data Across States, Data Center. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Accessed 2001/05/28.)
kidscount.org "Educational Attainment of Population Ages 25-34 (Percent) 2009." Data Across States. Data Center. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Accessed 2011.)
kidscount.org "On-time Graduation Rate 2007-2008." Data Across States. Data Center. The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Accessed 2011.)
Phinney, Jean, "Stages of Ethnic Identity Development in Minority Group Adolescents," The Journal of Early Adolescence 9 (1-2): 34-49. 1989. (Accessed 2010/06/20.)
Reaves, Jessica, "Q&A With Photographer Robert Yager," "L.A.'s Gangs are Back," Time, Inc. 2010. (Accessed 2010/06/28.)
Toppo, Greg,"'Crisis' Graduation Gap Found Between Cities, Suburbs," U.S.A. Today. April 1, 2008. (Accessed 2010/05/28.)
USDA ERC, "Rural Education at a Glance." 1990 & 2000. (Accessed 2010/05/27.)
U.S Census/allcountries.org, "253: Educational Attainment by State," U.S. Census 2000. 1990 & 2000. (Accessed 2010/05/27.)
U.S. Census Bureau, "Percent in Poverty, 2008," Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates (SAIPE) Program. Nov., 2009. (Accessed 2010/06/20.)