Bedford High School’s assistant principal Robert Rutkowski will proudly rattle off his students’ accomplishments:The Bearcat football team broke records last year, and the school puts on a great musical. He’s much more guarded when talking about kids dropping out. But he concedes it’s a persistent problem. He recalls one student in particular -- a girl who got mixed up with the wrong crowd, he says, developed a substance abuse problem, and eventually left school.
“She always struggled with grades, always. She always had run-ins with teachers, always was getting in trouble, always was getting suspended because of her run-ins with teachers.”
Forty-seven Bedford Heights High students dropped out in 2010, putting the school’s dropout rate at about 4 percent. That’s not so high when compared to the 25 percent and higher dropout rates at some high schools in neighboring Cleveland.
Steady rate but wide disparities
Joshua Hawley is the executive director of Ohio Education Research Center at Ohio State University. His group tracked Ohio’s dropout rates from 2006 through to 2010 for the Ohio Department of Education.
Statewide, more than 112,000 students dropped out of both traditional and charter schools during those five years, according to its findings. The dropout rate, it calculates, held steady at about 3 percent.
But Hawley says the dropout problem is not universal.
“If you look at the map for the state, it’s a problem that’s concentrated in some schools.”
And most are in or near the six largest public school districts in Ohio: Columbus, Dayton, Akron, Toledo, Cincinnati and Cleveland. Those urban districts comprise a little more than 8 percent of all traditional public schools in the state, but account for more than 37 percent of all dropouts.
Students in those districts, who are predominantly African American or Hispanic, are six and a half times more likely to drop out than their rural and suburban peers, Hawley’s report says. Across the state, white students also drop out in significant numbers, but the dropout rate of blacks and Hispanics is much higher.
One common factor: life issues
Colleen Wilber is vice president of communications for America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group that looks to increase the nation’s graduation rate. She says most dropouts of all races share a common characteristic.
“I think one of the things we see sort of across the board here is that these are students who are struggling with a lot of life issues and other issues outside of the classroom.”
Wilber points to what she calls the “the ABCs of dropouts” -- attendance, behavior, and course completion -- as being among the best indicators of who is at risk.
“A kid who misses more days of school is obviously is at risk for dropping out more than other students. Behavior, a lot of these kids have behavioral issues, and again we’re going back to these toxic environments, other things they’re dealing with in their life. They tend to have more suspensions, more disciplinary issues, things that keep them out of school. And then (there are) course credit and completion; so how are they actually doing in school when they’re there?”
Dropping out, studies show, carries big economic costs. Over a lifetime, people who don’t complete high school earn on average of $200,000 less than those who do, and $1 million less than college graduates. That lost productivity is not only detrimental to the individuals, Wilbur says; it’s a drag on the society at large.
“We know that kids who don’t graduate are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. They’re much more likely to require social services. They also tend to have more health problems, and it also tends to be a cycle. ... Kids who drop out, that cycle often continues with their own children, so it’s important to break that cycle.”
That cycle’s real for Bedford High’s Robert Rutkowski. Back in his office, he shows me a packet with “BHS Dropout Survival Guide” printed in big, black letters.
In future StateImpact stories we'll look deeper into what causes kids to give up on school, what's being done to keep them from dropping out, and programs that offer alternatives for those who do.
The pages are filled with a list of other options he discusses with students before they decide to leave school: alternative education programs, online schools, or taking the GED.
And he always reminds students that they’ll make a lot less money than they would if they’d graduate with that high school diploma.
But he says sometimes even this last-ditch effort isn’t enough.
“You spend so many countless hours with these students to try to prevent that kind of thing from happening, and it just breaks your heart that it sometimes does.”