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Alan Leventhal

Help for the high school dropout rate

Equal opportunity for education has been a social and moral imperative of our society. In the looming budget battles, it is now an economic imperative. The secondary education system annually produces 1 million dropouts nationally — 10,000 in Massachusetts alone — at a staggering cost to society.

The cost of a dropout over a lifetime has been estimated at up to $500,000 in lost wages, increased entitlements, and criminal justice spending. If the dropout rate can be reduced by one-half to 500,000 annually, savings will approach $250 billion over the lifetime of each graduating class. Over a 10-year period this would represent lifetime savings of almost $2.5 trillion. In the context of our budget challenges, this is real money.

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There are clear early indicators that predict the students most likely to drop out, including poor attendance, behavior problems, and failure in either math or English. Research shows that a sixth grader who exhibits just one of the indicators has less than a 20 percent likelihood to graduate high school. It is for this reason that City Year, in partnership with Neighborhood House Charter School of Dorchester, embarked on a three-year pilot program to reduce the dropout rate by keeping students on track. City Year, a Boston-born national nonprofit, deploys teams of young people to serve in high-poverty schools nationwide. Neighborhood House is an innovative K-8 charter school whose student population represents the demographics and learning issues of high-needs schools nationally. The goal of the pilot is to channel the passion and energy of national service in a focused way and have a significant and measurable impact on student success in high poverty schools.

The pilot is working, producing measurable results and demonstrating the significant impact a trained City Year team has on student success. For example, the number of students in the warning category for English and math was reduced by 50 percent. Off-track students who consistently completed their homework increased 54 percent to 88 percent.

What is compelling is that passionate and dedicated young men and women committed to a year of national service can make a difference in one of our most pressing national issues. And utilizing national service volunteers to help at-risk students in high-poverty areas get back on track to graduation is highly scalable. Young people are stepping forward in record numbers to volunteer for national service. In the past year, there were nearly 600,000 applications to AmeriCorps for only 80,000 positions.

Building on the enthusiasm for national service, City Year announced last spring its plan for the next decade to bring full-time tutors, mentors, and role models into 1,200 high-poverty schools in 38 cities nationwide. The goal is to help 1 million students stay on track for graduation from high school.

Funding for this initiative does not rely solely on the federal government. As a measure of the importance and effectiveness of this effort, local school districts and private philanthropies are providing matching funding, representing two-thirds of the cost.

The pilot is demonstrating the significant impact a trained City Year team has on student success.

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Boston has been known for innovation and new ideas. Charter schools were established with the expectation that they would serve as a laboratory for new approaches to improving education. The partnership of City Year and Neighborhood House is one example of scaling new ideas to have a major impact nationally. Already, City Year is in 21 Boston schools. To be transformational, we need to encourage more such partnerships.

The dropout rate has reached crisis levels. We are alienating a generation of Americans, which not only has a great social impact, but also major long-term economic consequences. Investment in programs that succeed in graduating more youths should be a clear social and economic priority.

Alan Leventhal is chairman and chief executive officer of Beacon Capital Partners.
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