Dropout Nation

The number of high school students who leave before graduating is higher--much higher--than you think. Inside one town's struggle to reverse the tide

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H. Schmid / zefa / Corbis

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The attention comes against a backdrop of rising peril for dropouts. If their grandparents' generation could find a blue-collar niche and prosper, the latest group is immediately relegated to the most punishing sector of the economy, where whatever low-wage jobs haven't yet moved overseas are increasingly filled by even lower-wage immigrants. Dropping out of high school today is to your societal health what smoking is to your physical health, an indicator of a host of poor outcomes to follow, from low lifetime earnings to high incarceration rates to a high likelihood that your children will drop out of high school and start the cycle anew.

Identifying the problem is just the first step. The next moves are being made by towns like Shelbyville, where a loose coalition of community leaders and school administrators have, for the first time, placed dropout prevention at the top of the agenda. Now they are gamely trying to identify why kids are leaving and looking for ways to reverse the tide. At the request of a former principal, a local factory promised to stop tempting dropouts with jobs. Superintendent David Adams is scouting vacant storefronts for a place to put a new alternative high school. And Shelbyville's Republican state representative, Luke Messer, sponsored a bill, signed into law by the Governor two weeks ago, that will give students alternatives to traditional high school while imposing tough penalties on those who try to leave early without getting permission from the school district or a judge.

Shelbyville, a town of almost 18,000 located on the outer fringe of the "doughnut" counties that ring Indianapolis, seems an unlikely battleground in the war on dropouts. Despite a few oddities--it's home to both the oldest living Hoosier and the world's tallest woman--it is an otherwise pleasantly unremarkable town. The capital is just a short drive away, but miles of rust-colored farmland, mainly cornfields waiting for seed, give the area a rural tinge. Most people live in single-family houses with yards and fences. Not many of them are very well off, but there's little acute poverty, as a gaggle of automotive and other factories has given the town a steady supply of well-paying jobs. Violent crime is rare, and the town is pervaded by a throwback decency. People wave at one another from their cars on Budd Street. They chitchat in the aisles of Mickey's T-Mart grocery store.

For years, Shelbyville had been comforted by its self-reported--and wildly inaccurate--graduation rate of up to 98%. The school district arrived at that number by using a commonly accepted statistical feint, counting any dropout who promises to take the GED test later on as a graduating student.

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