WASHINGTON - It's a nickname no principal could be proud of: 'Dropout Factory,' a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. That dubious distinction applies to more than one in 10 high schools across America.
'If you're born in a neighborhood or town where the only high school is one where graduation is not the norm, how is this living in the land of equal opportunity?' asks Bob Balfanz, the researcher at Johns Hopkins University who defines such a school as a 'dropout factory.'
There are about 1,700 regular or vocational high schools nationwide that fit that description, according to an analysis of Education Department data conducted by Johns Hopkins for The Associated Press. That's 12 percent of all such schools, no more than a decade ago but no less, either.
While some of the missing students transferred, most dropped out, Balfanz says. The data tracked senior classes for three years in a row to make sure local events like plant closures weren't to blame for the low retention rates.
The highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas in the South and Southwest. Most have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around, because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones - the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services.
Utah, which has low poverty rates and fewer minorities than most states, is the only state without a dropout factory. Florida and South Carolina have the highest percentages. About half of high schools in those states classify as dropout factories.
'Part of the problem we've had here is we live in a state that culturally and traditionally has not valued a high school education,' said Jim Foster, a spokesman for South Carolina's Department of Education. He noted that South Carolina residents once could get good jobs in textile mills without a high school degree, but that those jobs are now much harder to come by.
Federal lawmakers haven't focused much attention on the problem. The No Child Left Behind education law, for example, pays much more attention to educating younger students. But that appears to be changing.
House and Senate proposals to renew the five-year-old No Child law would give high schools more federal money and put more pressure on them to improve, and the Bush administration supports the idea.
The current law imposes serious consequences on schools that report low scores on math and reading tests, such as having to replace teachers or principals, but it lacks the same kind of teeth when it comes to graduation rates.
Nationally, about 70 percent of U.S. students graduate on time with a regular diploma. For Hispanic and black students, the proportion drops to about half.