First step to the future: finish school

When I start thinking about new topics for this column, I sometimes take for granted that students will finish high school. Then I run across information that reminds me that far too many teens drop out of high school before earning a diploma.

The United States made steady gains in high school graduation rates until about 20 years ago. Now we're losing ground. Around three in 10 high school students will drop out before graduation, according to research based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

A recent report from the Organization for Cooperation and Development says the U.S. is now ninth among industrialized nations in the proportion of young adults (25-34 years old) with a high school diploma. Korea, Norway, The Slovak Republic, Japan, The Czech Republic, Sweden, Canada and Finland are all graduating more of their young people from high school than does the United States.

It is important that we, as parents and as citizens, figure out how to keep more students in school, graduate more students from high school and prepare every student for further training or education beyond high school.

We need to encourage and support efforts at the national, state and community levels. To get ideas of what your schools can do, read "Getting Serious About High School Graduation," a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board. (You can download the report free from their Web site at

The reasons students drop out are varied and often complex. The biggest hurdle seems to be the ninth grade. More students fail the ninth grade than any other grade. Students who don't develop strong academic, study and social skills in the earlier grades are often overwhelmed by ninth grade. And many times these students are at or near the age where they're no longer required to attend school.

There are also things that each of us can do on a personal level. I know a young man who dropped out of high school several years ago after a serious accident caused him to fall behind in his studies. I truly regret not stepping forward and doing more to encourage him and to help him stay in school. I could have done more.

What can you do to help students stay in school? If you have a child or know a young person who is at risk of dropping out, talk to him. Tell him how important it is to stay in school. And offer to help. If you don't personally know a student in need, volunteer.

Middle schools and alternative high schools are full of students who are at risk of dropping out and these schools desperately need volunteers. Consider the following things you might do: complete non-teaching classroom tasks, so teachers can spend more individual time with students; baby-sit for young mothers, so they have uninterrupted time to study; tutor individual students; or get a "reading buddy," a teenager with whom you can read and discuss books.

Several of my co-workers at ACT do this - let a student shadow you in your job, and talk to him or her about high school graduation being the first step to entering your career. Hire a young person to work for you. Schedule work hours around schoolwork and keep tabs on how things are going in school.

Every adult in this country has a role to play in solving our dropout problem. Take time to let a young person know that the first step to his or her future is to earn a high school diploma.

n Rose Rennekamp is vice president of communications for the American College Test, ACT. She can be e-mailed at


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