Confronting the drop-out problem in Seattle - <I>This is the first part in an ongoing series addressing our city's public schools

Talk about a Pandora's Box.

Lift the lid on the issue of public education in Seattle these days - ditto the state, ditto the nation - and immediately you're confronted with a tangled-up network of compounding problems, each symptom connected to and impacting on the one that came before it, until at last you begin questioning the relative health of our society itself.

We hear the prevailing anecdotes that, fairly or not, taint the bushel: metal detectors overarching high-school hallways; students playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with U.S. geography; achievement gaps; functional illiteracy; gangs and drugs; all the way to the flatline terror informing director Gus Van Sant's recent, Columbine-inspired film "Elephant" - whose very title belies the idea that our alarm somehow equals awareness.

Writer Walter Benjamin famously warned that the "state of emergency" in modern society is not the exception but the rule. Schools, in the end, may be the ultimate barometer of our viability as a culture. As public schools reflect, so they reinforce and re-create and retain our economic structures, our cultural values, our systems of class and styles of management. Our democracy.

We can't afford to drop out of democracy, so ask yourself this question: What about dropping out of school? What would be an acceptable dropout rate in Seattle?

One in 100? Not even close to reality.

One in 10?

One in five?

Try one in four. You, you, you, gone. You, you, you, gone.

Hear the alarm bells?

Framing the problem

The lament in Seattle over "our schools" is constant and ubiquitous, almost folkloric by now. Teachers are overworked and underfunded; administrators are deemed out of touch; politicians left and right seek stopgap solutions, clamoring about villages, vouchers, children left behind, children "at-risk."

And the students themselves? Sometimes they appear pawns in a game of ideological chess, markers shoved and shuffled about, counted and tested and assessed and tested again.

With the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which holds schools accountable for "Adequate Yearly Progress" on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, the mania for testing has reached a fever pitch. Funding largely depends on it - which ipso facto can create yet another vicious cycle.

Yet even here, with so much at stake, the prognosis is poor. Despite districtwide gains across the board in the 2004 WASL, only 28 percent of 10th-graders tested showed proficiency in science. Only 38 percent of that same group were deemed proficient in math. And in the areas of reading and writing, just over half the students hit the mark.

It is a testament to the state of our schools right now that these numbers are heralded as a sign of progress.

Dr. Stephanie Bravmann, a veteran educator currently working as a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said she believes the current troubles facing the Seattle School District are rooted in an age-old crisis.

"We've never been able to get our acts together in this country about what it is we want our schools to do," Bravmann said. Whether we want public schools to create better citizens, to give vocational training, or to drill students in the so-called "Three Rs" - reading, writing and arithmetic - this prickly question, Bravmann argues, points to a systemic crisis that has confronted educators from the beginning.

Yet amid such dramatic symptoms and diagnoses, the most shocking and revealing fact of all - the "elephant" in the hallway - has remained hidden. Worse, ignored.

Some have claimed the dropout rate in the Seattle School District is closer to 30 percent. Like most controversial and highly politicized statistics, it depends on who you ask.

For reasons both understandable and telling, the state until very recently was in the habit, consciously or not, of deflating its dropout numbers by excluding whole categories of missing students.

Still, even the official numbers don't get much play. "Unfortunately, graduation rates are not widely publicized, and when they are found, they are often unreliable," said Jay Greene, who recently conducted research on graduation rates in Washington state for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

The study, commissioned by the Gates Foundation, took the shine off the district's former calculations by counting as dropouts more than just those students who filled out the official paperwork.

Adjusting for student relocation and other factors, the institute's study simply weighed the number of students who entered a given class - called a student "cohort" - against those who graduated.

According to Greene, having accurate information about graduation rates "helps us understand the nature and magnitude of the difficulties we face, much as test score results do."

Doubtless. And yet, despite the disparities among competing computations of dropout rates, and regardless of the numbers upon which we choose to rely, there are few people - if any - who would contend we are not in very serious trouble when it comes to keeping students in public schools.

The United States Department of Education has set a national goal of graduating 85 percent of students. However you crunch it, we are a long, long way from achieving such success. We are failing.

Doing the math

Opening Pandora's Box to unpack the specific numbers behind the overall dropout rate, we find the data complicated by a taboo on the one hand and a time bomb on the other: namely, class and race.

Graduation rates are lowest among African-American and Native American students - around 50 percent. Latino students, the fastest-growing youth population in the state, fare about the same.

Compare this to a 70 percent completion rate for white students and 77 percent for Asian-American students, and the trends appear no less disturbing for being altogether familiar.

Sakara Remmu, executive education chair for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the high dropout rate among African American students must be viewed in light of a long and entrenched history of disproportionality in Seattle schools.

"There's a historic trend of children of color being the stepchild of the Seattle public school district," Remmu said. The issue, she added, needs to be contextualized within a framework of "segregated education." She said the impact of this "long tradition," whether occurring in policy or in practice, stretches through generations of students of color, and that the parents of students currently enrolled have their own stories of experiencing racial division in Seattle schools.

"Segregation has never stopped," Remmu said, adding that a number of interrelated factors serve to perpetuate such inequality, "from human resources to disciplining children to everything in-between."

The issue of disproportionality, Remmu said, is huge when looking at the pressures confronting students of color: disproportionality in funding, in application of district policies (or the lack thereof), in economic status, as well as what she calls "cultural competency," or the way students and their communities are perceived and treated by teachers and administrators.

Data collected from various other government studies regarding dropout rates give weight to Remmu's assessment. A 2000 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, breaking down the trend in more detail, reported that young adults living in families with incomes in the lowest 20 percent of all family incomes were six times as likely as their peers in the top 20 percent of family income distribution to drop out of high school.

A city of Seattle's Human Services Department report on youth covering the years between 1999 and 2004 found that, in any given year, the risk of falling into poverty is three times higher for high-school dropouts. And in Seattle, 40 percent of unemployed persons lack a high-school diploma.

Nationwide, 75 percent of the prison population are dropouts. It costs $50,000 a year in Seattle to keep a youth in juvenile detention. Black males make up 34 percent of detention admissions, though they constitute only 7 percent of the total youth population.

From the same report: Only 19 percent of teenaged mothers complete high school.

And so on. Circles within circles.

The data on high-school dropouts reads like a circuit board; the connections are clear. A combination of factors may lead to the act of dropping out - alienation, academic falling behind, pregnancy, drugs, poverty - but the act itself is a single cause that explodes into a menacing proliferation of potential or probable effects, none of them very encouraging.

An old joke used to go: You gotta really work to flunk high school.

That joke isn't funny anymore.

Part two of "Erasing the Future" will appear in next week's issue[[In-content Ad]]