The Rapidian

Stopping the drop: Student retention in GR schools

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By Mia Cheema, Robbie Sullivan, Michael Wilson and Dan Michniewicz, Frederick Meijer Honors College, Grand Valley State University

John F. Kennedy once said, "Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource." The media thoroughly covers economy and health care but it generally neglects to focus on one of the most pressing issues of our day—the nation's inadequate education system at the local level.

Nothing illustrates this inadequacy better than the percentage of students who do not complete a high school education. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in the nation's largest 100 public school districts, 31 percent of students drop out or fail to graduate. Our local situation is even more distressing: Grand Rapids Public School's total graduation rate is 52 percent when the district's alternative education schools are combined with its other high schools.

Grand Rapids is also faced with a rising poverty rate, which was 15.7 percent in 1999. For a more recent assessment of the area's situation, we can consider Kent County's poverty rate, which was 14.9 percent as of 2008, an increase of 1.8 percent in just two years.

Education and economic status are strongly intertwined. A student who comes from poverty is more likely to drop out of school, and a student who drops out of school is more likely to live in poverty.
An October 2009 report has found that out-of-school youth aged 16-24 with a diploma have a 68.1 percent employment rate, while those of the same demographic who dropped out of high school have a 45.7 percent employment rate.

We spoke with teachers at public and private schools in Grand Rapids and asked them why students dropped out of high school. These teachers said a lack of parental involvement as well as student disinterest in the curriculum contribute to high dropout rates. They also cited decreases in after-school activities, a poor bus system, unconcerned parents, and deficiencies in both the number and quality of counselors.

In general, the GRPS teachers we spoke with believed that students who are given many diverse mentors, in the form of coaches, counselors, motivating parents, and teachers, are more likely to stay in school. The teachers also said they thought the transition from middle school to high school may be too demanding for some students. In middle schools, where passing a certain class usually does not determine admission to the next, more preparation for high school is necessary. If classes were instead more gradually difficult, students may be less likely to drop out of high school.

According to sources at Grand Rapids' private schools, teacher involvement is of the utmost importance. The same sources said when teachers met regularly to ensure they were on the same page regarding career pathway based learning, classroom production increased.

Many private schools, including those in the Grand Rapids area, provide college preparatory programs. These programs perpetuate an expectation that students will graduate and attend college. The honors classes, AP courses, and other programs at private (and many public) schools are geared toward preparing students for a future in a post-secondary educational institution.

Other institutions in the area provide students with the alternative option of vocational training. GRPS has six Centers for Innovation, where students can study specific fields. The Kent Career Technical Center provides hands-on career training for over 2,400 students each year, and this comes at no cost to 11th and 12th grade students. More than 50 percent of KCTC's students attend college or participate in advanced training, according to the center's Web site. City High has an internship program, but students must take the initiative to seek out a counselor in order to take part in it. Curricula such as these integrate academic achievement with field-based learning, allowing students to realize the importance of learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Without different schools that cater to students with different skill levels, the needs of students on either end of the educational spectrum are not met, and students often either fall behind and eventually drop out or feel unchallenged by their classes.

Note: Please direct questions about the use of anonymous sources in this article to Professor Kevin den Dulk, Department of Political Science and Honors Faculty-in-Residence, Grand Valley State University.


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