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Study on school dropouts has some surprises

WASHINGTON

They number in the millions - 3.5 million in the most recent year for which estimates are available. They are America's high school dropouts. Of every three young men and women entering high school, only two will emerge with a diploma. For minority students, the odds are worse. And the losers pay a price their whole life.

They are the subject of a study called "The Silent Epidemic," which will be released on Thursday, conducted for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation by a private research firm called Civic Enterprises. I was given a preview of the report by John Bridgeland, a former Bush administration domestic policy adviser who is one of its authors.

The dropout problem has been researched to death. But this study is unusual in two respects. Peter Hart's polling firm was commissioned to do focus groups and surveys of dropouts themselves, young people between 16 and 25 who had quit school without diplomas, interviewed in 25 locations ranging from big cities and suburbs to small towns, all with unusually high dropout rates.

And these young people offered solid reasons to believe this is a solvable problem.

For one thing, they recognize that they made a mistake in quitting school. Eight out of 10 said they now know that having a diploma is important to success in life. And national data back them up. Dropouts earn an average $9,200 a year less than high school graduates, and have far greater likelihood of winding up on welfare, in prison or on drugs.

Three out of four of those interviewed said that, if they could do it over, they would choose to stay in school. Even more said they would re-enroll now to get their degrees, if they could do it with people their own age.

And most are confident they could make it. The big news out of the study - a surprise to many, I expect - is that most of these dropouts are not "hopeless losers." One-third of the 467 surveyed said they were failing in school. But more than six out of 10 were maintaining averages of C or better when they quit.

As many complained that classes were not challenging or interesting as found the academic requirements daunting. I believe it. A year ago, I visited and wrote about the Gateway to College program run by the Portland, Ore., Community College (and also funded by the Gates Foundation). There, I saw 14 teenage dropouts discussing the writings of Plato and Malcolm X - college-level work.

I quoted the leaders of the voluntary program, in which students accepted strict discipline barring absences or blown assignments, as believing it demonstrates that "even for the hardest cases - teenagers with few credits, low grade-point averages and a host of personal problems - the challenge of a tough curriculum, backed by skillful teaching in small classes and plenty of personal counseling, can be a path to success."

That is also the essence of what the dropouts in this report suggest would rescue and reward them and their millions of counterparts.

The authors of the study make a couple of other important points. They note that dropouts typically show many signs of disaffection before they actually quit school. One of the most common is frequent absences - skipping school entirely, or cutting classes, or leaving early in the afternoon. Better monitoring of attendance and follow-ups with students and families when the pattern first appears could do a lot to avoid the ultimate dropout.

And, the authors note, almost no one drops out of school before the 10th grade - or age 16. The fact that 16 is the last year of compulsory school attendance in most states is not irrelevant. Only one state, New Mexico, makes enrollment mandatory for most students until a high school diploma is obtained.

Raising the minimum age for school attendance, if accompanied by real support for the wavering students, would do a lot to end "the silent epidemic."

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Eli Segal, who died last week at 63, was known to my generation of political reporters as the backstage architect of Democratic presidential campaigns from Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern through Bill Clinton and, in 2004, Wesley Clark.

Beyond that, as a government official, he was instrumental in creating AmeriCorps, the volunteer service program that has introduced thousands of young Americans to the ideal of community involvement that was the motivating force in Segal's own commitment to politics. In doing that, he left an enduring legacy.

David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.