Burr: Lowering High School Drop-Out Rate Achievable

The state of North Carolina has recently released its most current public high school graduation statistics. The numbers are alarming—only 68% of our students graduate from high school. The numbers are bleaker for various subgroups of students—a 60% high school graduation rate for Black students, 55% for low-income students, and 52% for Hispanic students. Eighty percent of the Nation's high schools with the highest number of dropouts are in only 15 states--North Carolina is one of those states. Our students, our schools, our communities can do better. We must do better.

In today's competitive economy, our young people must be prepared for jobs which increasingly require a postsecondary education. Unfortunately, in 2003, 3.5 million Americans ages 16 to 25 did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school. Studies show that those without a high school diploma are more likely to be unemployed, incarcerated, live in poverty and receive public assistance than those individuals with at least a high school diploma.

We are fortunate to live in a State with a rich history in higher education. Yet we cannot afford to sit back and take it easy. We should be proud of this tradition, but while 64.5% of recent North Carolina high school graduates go on to enroll in college, far too many North Carolinians cannot enroll because they never completed high school.

A recent survey of high school dropouts conducted by Civic Enterprises for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation presents a picture of the American high school dropout that is surprising to many. I know it surprised me. Eighty-eight percent of those students who dropped out of high school had passing grades when they dropped out. Fifty-eight percent dropped out with two or fewer years to complete high school; 66 percent said they would have worked harder if expectations had been higher; 81 percent recognized that a high school diploma was absolutely vital to their success in life; and 74 percent said they would have stayed in school if they had it to do all over again. These numbers prove to me that getting more young people to stay in school is achievable.

There is no silver bullet that will fix our public high schools. I hope more and better research will give us answers, but until then, there are a number of things that we can and should do to end this crisis.

We know there are three R's to making our public high schools work better for today's students--rigor, relevance, and relationships. First, we must ensure that all students have access to a challenging curriculum that will prepare them for both for college and for work. Second, we must ensure that students have opportunities through hands-on activities such as internships and job shadowing to experience and understand the connections between what they are learning in the classroom and the working world. And third, we must ensure that both students and their parents have the information and support they need regarding high school graduation requirements, college entrance requirements, and the financial aid available at the Federal, state, and local levels to pay for college. More importantly we must make sure that these students build relationships with counselors and teachers who are tracking their attendance and following their progress. No one should fall through the cracks.

I am working with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to face the dropout crisis head on. Together we have recently introduced the Graduate for a Better America Act to create a competitive grant program targeted at high schools with the lowest graduation rates. This is a first step and an opportunity for students, parents, and educators to understand that the need for high student achievement and high school graduation are greater than ever before. The legislation will also give students and educators more tools so a greater number of our young people graduate and move on to college or the workplace with the knowledge and the skills they need to succeed.

I believe we can increase the number of young people who choose to stay in school and reap the lifelong benefits of a diploma. Now is the time to face our dropout crisis with initiatives that will have a positive impact on the lives of these students. By providing more challenging classes, offering more internship and work study programs, and building better relationships with students we can do better.