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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 6, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 10
JHU Study Shows Detailed Picture of High School Dropout Crisis

By Mary Maushard

Dropping out of high school is predictable and preventable, especially in large city public schools that produce many of the nation's dropouts, according to a new study by education researchers at Johns Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools.

In "Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia's Dropout Crisis, 2000-05," Ruth Curran Neild and Robert Balfanz draw on extensive data from Philadelphia schools and social service agencies not only to establish the problem but also to provide insight on how cities across the country can solve their dropout problem.

"This report can help big city school districts gain a deeper understanding of the dimensions and characteristics of the dropout crisis," said Balfanz, a research scientist and co-director of Talent Development High Schools at Johns Hopkins. "It provides a road map on how to find and establish the best prevention and intervention strategies to keep all students on the graduation track."

The research report, released Oct. 19 by the Philadelphia Youth Network, has significant implications for how cities can effectively use their resources to encourage more students to stay in school. According to Neild and Balfanz:

Most future dropouts can be identified before or early in the first year of high school. For example, eighth-graders who miss five weeks of school or fail math or English have at least a 75 percent chance of dropping out of high school. And in the Philadelphia district, as with most districts with a dropout challenge, many future dropouts attend a subset of high schools that often are overwhelmed by the sheer number of students in need of intensive intervention.

Most dropouts leave school because they are not attending regularly and are failing courses, a finding that counters the common interpretation of the landmark Silent Epidemic report that suggested that most students drop out because they are bored and not challenged.

Most dropouts are not involved with social service agencies, but those who are have extremely high dropout rates. For high school students who have been abused and neglected, are in foster care or receive an out-of-home placement in the juvenile justice system, the probability of dropping out is 75 percent or higher. Likewise, the researchers found that having a child before or during high school dramatically increased the chances that female students would drop out. This finding comes from the first analysis of individual school and social service records and suggests that current social service/juvenile justice supports are not strong enough to enable adolescents in their charge to graduate.

The report provides a comprehensive policy agenda and sets goals and timetables for which leaders across public agencies will be held accountable. The plan calls for developing a system of high-quality options, effective interventions and quality supports to help young people earn their diplomas; targeting attention and support for foster care youth, pregnant and parenting teens, and youth offenders; and building a comprehensive strategy across city agencies to support students and schools.

In addition, the report makes specific recommendations for ways in which business leaders, elected officials, parents and educators can take an active part in the solution.

In light of the report, the Philadelphia School District on Oct. 19 launched Project U-Turn, a citywide effort to focus attention on the city's dropout crisis and to implement strategies and investment to resolve it.

The study is available on the Web at


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