How many school dropouts are there in Durham? – Christopher B. Sanford

As an improbable introduction to the subject of dropouts, let me offer an old parable (of my own invention):

Once upon a time, in an underdeveloped land, a factory made – let’s say – nuts and bolts to sell to large manufacturers. Trouble was, these manufacturers found that 20 percent of the nuts and bolts were defective.

The factory at last looked at the situation and realized that the problem came because they were buying small lots of metal from mom-and-pop smelters in the area, and many of these were producing metal with lots of impurities which the factory had great difficulty removing.

“But we can’t help it,” the factory owners said, “because we have to buy whatever these small smelters produce.”

Guess what? That’s our school system.

The schools have to take in every child, ready or not, and try to bring them up to speed. And in too many cases, playing catch-up doesn’t succeed, so many kids eventually drop out.

In another article I’ll talk about a solution, but the point here is that it is hard to hold the school system responsible for their outputs when they have no control over their inputs. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at dropouts (in this article, how many, and in the next, how much they are costing us):

The Durham School System (DPS) claims a graduation rate of 85 percent, up from 77 percent a few years ago. This is progress. But the flip side of that is 15 percent non-graduates, or about 360 dropouts. I don’t think this is acceptable. Some would say that the school system has failed them, but it is more true that we as a society have failed all these young people.

And now they – except for the few (how many?) that develop some drive or get some breaks and go on to make good – will fail us for the rest of their lives, drawing heavily on social services, running afoul of the legal system, serving prison time, paying very little in taxes, and costing us in lots of other ways. A 2012 report by MDC to the Durham City Council and Board of County Commissioners put the price-tag for “disconnected youth,” meaning mostly dropouts, as $250,000 each over a lifetime – payable by us.

But the dropout numbers are probably far worse than 360.

Duke grad student Amy Todd in 2013 looked at ways of calculating dropouts, and settled mainly on the “cohort rate”. She said, “Let’s take the number of ninth graders, add newcomers, subtract kids who move away, and then we know how many 12th graders we should have. Let’s see how many of them graduated, not just in four years, but in five, allowing for delays.” [My wording, summarizing her process] She came up with a 61 percent graduation rate. (How acceptable is that?)

Here’s my last (shocking) set of figures, using a similar method to calculate the dropout rate: The US Census shows about 18,800 young people of ages 15-19 in Durham County (current estimate). Divided up among those five ages, there should be about 3,700 of each age, so about 3,700 should graduate each year. But DPS shows only about 2,100 graduates each year. Adding in several hundred other graduates from private schools and elsewhere, we still end up with a gap of over 1,000 unaccounted-for young people, something close to Amy Todd’s 61 percent.

So no matter how you cut it, the reality is that every year at least 1,000 Durham young people – and maybe more – leave school without adequate preparation for college or work – or life. My concern is not to get hung up on the exact numbers. The important thing is that virtually any number is too big.

The purpose of coming articles in this series will be to lead us toward some solutions.

Next time we will look at how much all these dropouts are costing themselves – and all of us.

Comments are appreciated and welcome. Please send to sanfordchristopher1636@gmail.com or send a letter to the editor to letters@heraldsun.com.