Time for action on dropouts

Published 10:28 pm Thursday, April 2, 2009

One in five.

That’s the approximate chance that a student entering ninth grade in Suffolk public schools has of dropping out before graduation, according to a study released this week by the Virginia Department of Education.

Only Portsmouth Public Schools ranked worse in Hampton Roads than Suffolk in the survey of dropout and on-time graduation rates. And at less than half a percentage point, the difference between the two school systems was statistically insignificant.

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Suffolk’s best-achieving high school, according to the study, is Nansemond River, where “only” one in 10 students drop out of school. The levels at Lakeland High are nothing short of staggering: Fully one-fourth of that school’s students never earn high school diplomas.

The Board of Education’s study marked the first time that Virginia has tracked individual students through all four years of high school, adjusting dropout figures to reflect the movement of students between school divisions and to account for those who earn GEDs, instead of diplomas. The new methodology removes the “fudge factor” that used to allow school systems to contend the state’s dropout numbers didn’t reflect reality.

In Suffolk’s case, the reality is that far too many students leave school without the most basic qualification they will need to be productive citizens: a high school diploma.

Earlier this year, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama called for all Americans to commit to some sort of advanced education, noting that our economy and our nation’s future depend on having skilled workers. Obviously, without a high school diploma, advanced education isn’t even an option, and a life of poverty is a very real possibility.

Suffolk school officials said this week that they need to study the situation to develop some solutions. It was an inadequate response to an embarrassing and crippling problem.

Somehow in the midst of such important concerns as congratulating state championship basketball teams and making plans to build a new school in the Holland area, the city’s School Board needs to carve out some time to address the issue in a decisive manner. Neither the system’s students nor the city as a whole can afford to wait much longer for solutions.