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

  • H. Schmid / zefa / Corbis

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    But can educators really be faulted for the calculation, however cold, that certain kids are an unwise investment of their limited energies and resources? That question quickly leads to the much thornier issues of class and clout that shape the dropout crisis. The national statistics on the topic are blunt: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, kids from the lowest income quarter are more than six times as likely to drop out of high school as kids from the highest. And in Shelbyville, nearly every dropout I met voiced a similar complaint: teachers and principals treat the "rich kids" better. "The rich kids always knew how to be good kids," says Sarah in a more nuanced version of the same refrain. "So I guess it's natural the schools wanted to work with them more than with the rest of us." The poor kids, though, are exactly the ones who need the extra investment.

    Shelbyville leaders hope to change the prevailing mentality. At a cavernous high school gym in nearby Columbus, I watched the boys' basketball sectional semifinal with Shelbyville mayor Scott Furgeson. The Shelbyville Golden Bears' 21-0 regular season record had turned the town's usual Hoosier hysteria into Hoosier histrionics. As his constituents cheered on the good kids--the lithe, clean-cut basketball players who were dominating Columbus North High School--Furgeson paused to think about the other kids. Before becoming mayor, he spent 22 years managing the local Pizza King franchise. Every year he had to hire up to 200 teenagers, many of them dropouts, just to keep 10 full-time positions staffed. Those teenagers, failing in life as they had failed at school, were often the children of people Furgeson had seen quit school when he was a student at Shelbyville High 25 years before. The dropout problem, he says, corrupts the community far beyond the halls of the high school. "I worry that we're creating a permanent underclass," he says.

    John Bridgeland, CEO of the Washington-based public-policy firm Civic Enterprises, says it's that type of attitude shift, more than legislation, that is likely to lead to change. Messer's 2005 bill made Indiana one of six states in the past five years to raise its minimum dropout age to 18 from 16. (Twenty-three states still let kids drop out at the younger age without parental consent.) Bridgeland, who co-wrote the Gates Foundation--funded report, supports the age hike but warns that states can't legislate in a vacuum. "These laws have to be coupled with strong support from the school and the community," he says. Underlying that conviction is perhaps the most surprising finding of the Gates survey: just how few dropouts report being overwhelmed academically. Fully 88% said they had passing grades in high school. Asked to name the reasons they had left school, more respondents named boredom than struggles with course work.


    Susan Swinehart, 17, was an honors student her freshman year. She also joined the yearbook staff and found that she loved selling the $300 full-page yearbook ads to local businesses like Rush Shelby Energy and Fat Daddy's restaurant.

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