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VIEWPOINT: North Dakota must confront dropout problem

BISMARCK -- One of the great things about spring is high school graduation ceremonies. The pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns, family and friends, success and accomplishments are all what makes for a great event for many a North Dakota high sc...

BISMARCK -- One of the great things about spring is high school graduation ceremonies. The pomp and circumstance, caps and gowns, family and friends, success and accomplishments are all what makes for a great event for many a North Dakota high school senior.

But in our state this year, there were some 770 fewer graduates than should have been on stage with their peers. The missing 770 had dropped out of school.

For many dropouts, the future is one of limitation and unrealized potential, and that will hurt not only the dropout but also all North Dakotans.

During the 2007-08 school year, the most recent school year for which statistics are available, 778 North Dakota students dropped out. If the pattern continues, four to five students will leave each and every school day. What's particularly troubling is that a third of our dropouts are American Indian students.

The nation's dropout rate is one of the most urgent economic crises facing the U.S. Nationwide, one in three high school students drops out before graduating.

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Students who drop out are at a severe disadvantage in life.

Each dropout over the course of his or her lifetime will earn about $260,000 less than will classmates who graduate. For our communities, this means fewer dollars available to invest in local businesses, churches and other important institutions. Furthermore, dropouts also are more likely to be unemployed and more likely to be in jail or prison than are their graduating peers.

Dropouts are less healthy than other adults as well, according to new study, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Sixty-five percent of North Dakota adults who hadn't completed high school reported being in less than good health. When compared to college graduates, these adults were twice as likely to report their health status as being poor.

Dropouts cost the state about $2 million a year in public health care assistance.

As serious as the dropout problem is, it hasn't attracted the notice it deserves or the commitments it needs to build momentum to create meaningful solutions.

The school community cannot end North Dakota's dropout problem alone. While teachers and schools often are blamed for the dropout problem, it's not our problem alone to solve. Interviews with students who drop out reveal a variety of reasons: a lack of connection to the school environment; a perception that school is boring; feeling unmotivated; academic challenges and the weight of real- world events, such as becoming a parent or caring for a family member; and having to add to the family's income.

We've also learned two other important things from dropouts that may inform how we craft solutions. First, the decision to stop attending school is not a sudden act but a gradual process of disengagement. Attendance patterns are a clear early warning sign.

Second, dropouts report that their parents aren't as involved as they need to be.

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It will take educators, parents, students, business leaders, elected officials, religious and community leaders to solve a problem as complex as this one. And complex problems aren't solved with a silver bullet.

We'll need to employ multiple approaches and work at different levels.

As educators, we are ready to step up. We know there are some children who our schools haven't reached in a way that keeps them connected to school until completion.

The North Dakota Education Association Foundation along with Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.; Gov. John Hoeven and Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, legislators and the state School Boards Association, Council of Education Leaders, Department of Public Instruction and Chamber of Commerce are partnering with America's Promise Alliance -- the foundation created by Colin Powell and his wife, Alma Powell -- to organize a dropout prevention summit Monday and Tuesday in Bismarck.

We hope to develop an action plan to address the problem.

It's imperative that we join together to stop the exodus. Working together we can identify and implement realistic solutions. Our students' future depends on it. North Dakota's future depends on it.

Draper is president of the North Dakota Education Association.

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