WASHINGTON (AP) " The high school dropout problem is getting better in some big cities where it's most severe, a national study found.
The situation remains dismal: More than one in four kids drops out of high school in the United States.
Still, Philadelphia, Tucson, Ariz., and Kansas City, Mo., made huge gains over the past decade, boosting graduation rates by 20 percent or more, the study found.
In all, 13 cities saw double-digit improvement in their graduation rates, according to the study released Wednesday by America's Promise Alliance.
"I was surprised at the size of the gains in some of these cities," said Christopher Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which prepared the report.
"The majority of these large cities are making improvements, and that's something you wouldn't necessarily get if you've been listening to this debate recently," Swanson said.
Urban schools still have a long way to go. On average, only half the kids graduate in the 50 biggest cities, the report said. Those cities are home to half the country's population and are driving a national graduation rate that is estimated at 70 percent.
And while most big cities are making gains, 19 have lost ground. Las Vegas saw its graduation rates plummet 23 percentage points to 44.5 percent. The graduation rate in Wichita, Kan., dropped 18 percentage points to 54.5 percent, and in Omaha, Neb., it dropped 15 percentage points to 50 percent.
The report measures progress from 1995 to 2005, the most recent year for which comprehensive data was available from the Education Department.
For kids who don't finish high school, the future is bleak. High school dropouts are the only segment of the work force for whom income levels shrank over the past 30 years, the report said.
Only in recent years have people begun to realize how widespread and severe the dropout crisis is, said Bob Balfanz, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. Balfanz has worked with America's Promise, a children's advocacy group started by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, but did not work on this report.
"Paying attention matters," Balfanz said. "If there's a problem, and we react to it, at least in some cases, we'll make it better."
Since then, Philadelphia and other cities have worked on finding ways to intervene, especially when kids are most vulnerable, in ninth grade when they start high school.
Some districts have created ninth-grade academies that offer smaller classes and help catching up in math or other subjects to ease the transition into high school.
Districts also have developed smaller schools and focused on helping kids with other problems " homelessness, a sick relative they take care of " to keep kids from dropping out.
Chicago, which saw its graduation rate rise more than 9 percentage points, tried an array of different ideas, including new smaller schools and ninth-grade academies.
Until January, Chicago public schools had been run for the past seven years by Arne Duncan, who now is serving as President Barack Obama's education secretary.
Obama has said he wants to fix the problem of high school dropouts.
"As the president said, every young person who drops out of high school is not only quitting on himself but is also quitting on his country," Duncan said in a statement.