At 16, Lyle Oates had quit high school and was selling drugs on the streets of Cambridge, Mass.
“I needed the money and school wasn’t telling me how to make money,” said Mr. Oates, now 18.
That children who grew up in his poor, urban neighborhood never graduated, much less went to college, was a given, Mr. Oates said. What stunned him—after returning to an alternative school last year called YouthBuild—was just how many had given up on school like he had.
When he left school in his sophomore year, Mr. Oates became one of more than 1 million students who drop out of American high schools every year—a grim figure that took center stage last week in Washington.
“School was boring for me,” Mr. Oates told a crowd of hundreds of educators, policymakers, government officials, and youth advocates who assembled May 9 for a day-long conference billed as the “National Summit to End America’s Silent Dropout Epidemic.”
His experience, along with those of several other students who had dropped out or nearly dropped out, was meant to highlight one of the most intractable problems in public education—graduation rates that are, at best, 70 percent nationally, and for black and Latino students, especially boys, closer to 50 percent.
Much disagreement persists over how to most accurately calculate graduation rates, a problem that the National Governors Association is trying to tackle by developing a uniform method that all 50 states will agree to use.
The Editorial Projects in Education Research Center used the occasion of the conference to unveil a Web-based mapping program that provides 2002-03 graduation rates in every school district in the nation. The site offers the opportunity to download a report for each district that provides details on graduation rates, including an analysis of when students leave high school.
With the help of the cable channel MTV and a documentary it produced on three students teetering on the brink of dropping out, the conference sought to draw widespread public attention, including that of young people, to the issue.
The gathering was put together by Civic Enterprises, a Washington-based public policy organization, and funded by heavy-hitter philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates helps support Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report on graduation-related issues and partially supports the mapping tool.
First lady Laura Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings were featured speakers.
Over and over, speakers here underscored the importance of making high school reform and graduation rates specifically, and the importance of public education in general, a top issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.
To that end, the conference’s final speaker was Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor and superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, who is leading a recently unveiled $60 million campaign funded by the Gates Foundation and the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation to put education on the voters’ and candidates’ agendas. (“Funds to Push Education as Election Issue,” May 2, 2007.)
But the most real-world talk—and suggested solutions—on the dropout problem came from Mr. Oates and the other young people who spoke of their experiences. Relationships with a teacher or another strong adult were often missing, they said.
Fallon O’Hagan, 21, dropped out of Lehman High School in the Bronx section of New York City in the 9th grade and never made it back. Like Mr. Oates, she described her classes as boring, and many of her teachers as uninterested in whether she came to school.
“So I just stopped going,” said Ms. O’Hagan, who now holds down two waitressing jobs in New York. “I think if a teacher had pulled me aside and talked to me, I probably could have gotten myself together.”
Ms. O’Hagan said she has regretted her decision to leave school ever since, and has tried at least once to earn her General Educational Development certificate.
“You start to feel like you are too far gone, and it’s really discouraging,” she said.
Jynell Harrison, 19, said some teachers at her large, high-poverty high school in Providence, R.I., were too quick to judge students negatively. Many of her classmates were dealing with broken families, supporting relatives, and coping with other deep social problems that made it hard for them to concentrate at school, she said.
“So they misinterpreted a loss of focus as a lack of determination and will, and that’s what it becomes,” she said.
Ms. Harrison, who had tried but failed to get into one of Providence’s best public high schools, graduated on time in 2005 and is now working to save money for college.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said.
Kristy Hignite, 18, said she feels lucky, too. In 9th grade, the student from Shelbyville, Ind., had already fallen behind in credits toward graduation. When she moved to a different town and high school for her sophomore year, the problem got worse. Trouble between her divorced parents distracted Ms. Hignite from schoolwork, and though she knew there were counselors she could talk to, she didn’t.
“I was afraid to approach them because I felt like my problem had to be bigger and better,” she said. “I was on the verge of just straying away.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week as Conference Focuses on ‘Silent Epidemic’ of Dropouts