For “Rick” — who lives where he works

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“Rick” is my union rep. I haven’t used his services, but he takes his union position seriously. He doesn’t gossip. He’s smart and funny, a middle-aged, African-American man who eats what he wants against medical advice — trying every so often to fix his excesses with a salad or two — and sometimes says what he thinks. He’s got a gift of quiet. He listens. Every so often, he shares his thoughts.

We were talking about the new retention policy, which appears to be another version of “we don’t retain nobody, nohow.” As noted in other posts, I understand where this policy originates. The research supports social promotion. The socially promoted have better outcomes in school and life overall. That point’s no longer debatable, even given the sometimes shoddy nature of social science research.

Here’s what Rick said, though, in a viewpoint that deserves cyberspace and cybertime:

“The thing is, those people in the Board Office, they go home at night to Lake Forest or places like that. They don’t live here. They’re just passing the problem on and it’s no problem for them. They don’t see these teen-age kids who didn’t make it through high school and who can’t find a job. I see them. They are standing on the street corner outside my house. They have nothing to do. They’ve got no way to make money. They’ve got no prospects.”

Rick is a big guy and he carries a natural authority. But he’ll admit to being scared of those kids on the street corner. Those kids don’t have a lot to lose, he tells me. The numbers here are hard to tease out. Crime statistics for the area baffle local residents and have led to a number of articles on the trustworthiness of crime statistics reported by police departments. Our crime statistics, like our graduation statistics, are honestly hard to understand when you are viewing them from the local stage. If 500 people finish at a middle school and 200 graduate from the high school across the street, when the graduation rate is over one-half of students, what happened to the missing bodies on the stage?

Regardless of the numbers, I can see why Rick is worried. Gang activity runs rampant in this locale. Drug abuse has become standard fare. What do you do if you have no education, no job and no legitimate job prospects? The underground economy offers one way to scrounge up cash. We had a middle school student murdered a few years ago when he flashed a bunch of money at some older peers. I’d guess that money came from drugs. I don’t know for sure. I know I held crying teachers who had known the boy, helped them down long, sad hallways. I watched a school mourn a kid who had already begun moving toward that street corner, regularly skipping school and ignoring classes.

What happens when we pass Napoleon on from eighth grade to high school when he is reading at a fourth grade level and doing math at a third grade level? Statistically, we improve his odds of long-term success, according to the studies. But what are those odds of success? Mostly, they range from poor to abysmally awful.

How costly is the decision to drop out of high school? To quote the PBS article “Dropout Nation,” (,

Consider a few figures about life without a diploma:


The average dropout can expect to earn an annual income of $20,241, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (PDF). That’s a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate, and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.


Of course, simply finding a job is also much more of a challenge for dropouts. While the national unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent in August, joblessness among those without a high school degree measured 12 percent. Among college graduates, it was 4.1 percent.


Among dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24, incarceration rates were a whopping 63 times higher than among college graduates, according to a study (PDF) by researchers at Northeastern University. To be sure, there is no direct link between prison and the decision to leave high school early. Rather, the data is further evidence that dropouts are exposed to many of the same socioeconomic forces that are often gateways to crime.

In Rick’s view, when we pass those kids along, we pass along our problems to the community — and he’s right. Those high school students who can’t read, write or multiply often drop out of high school. Year by year, our lowest performers may be digging themselves into deeper holes until we finally offer them an out, legally allowing them to exit school. Then many of these kids enter the underground economy, the only economy where they can make enough money to support their lives and habits.

Rick watches these kids on his street corner while administrators determining district retention policies drive safely home to comfortable, suburban houses in areas where the majority of high school kids move on to graduate from college.