Excerpts and images from Minnesota Public Radio.
Brandt Williams, Reporting
Caroline Yang, Photographs
For many, GED certificates are the ticket into the workforce or higher education that they didn’t punch in high school. …Minnesota ranks near the bottom of states when it comes to the on-time graduation rates for students of color.
Most high school dropouts in the state are white, reflecting the makeup of the state’s student population, but the trends among students of color are especially troubling when compared to their peers throughout the nation. By one measure, they didn’t get much help. MPR News found Minnesota ranks dead last in the portion of education money that schools spend on counselors and other support staff who can intervene in the lives of failing students.
Young people likely to drop out often show signs of trouble before reaching high school, said researcher Robert Balfanz, a leading scholar on graduation rates at Johns Hopkins University.
They might miss school or get in trouble in class or fail a course, he said. “Initially maybe it’s one course, and soon it’s a couple courses.”
Balfanz said school staff should measure what he calls the ABCs: attendance, behavior and course failure. Schools can improve graduation rates by focusing on freshmen whose middle school records raise red flags in these areas, he said.
And while students of color, who are more likely to be poor, have a weaker record of graduating on time than white students, Balfanz said focusing only on race and poverty is not the answer.
The bottom line, he said, is that all students need to earn enough credits to graduate.
“And to earn credits, you have to pass your classes,” Balfanz said. “And to pass your classes you have to be there. And you have to get your work done. And by focusing on those mechanisms we’re focusing on the mechanisms that most directly impact whether you graduate or not.”
…In 2009, researchers at Northeastern University in Boston dropped this statistical bombshell: 16- to 24-year-old male dropouts were getting locked up at a rate 63 times higher than the rate for young men with college degrees. The study also found that, on any given day, nearly a quarter of all young black male high school dropouts in that same age group are in jails, prisons or juvenile detention facilities. That is more than three times the rate for Asian, Hispanic and white dropouts.
That’s expensive. A 2013 report from the Council on Black Minnesotans found that state taxpayers spend more than $48,000 per prison inmate per year, just less than a year of tuition at Carleton College, the highest tuition in the state.
Alyssa Graves’ path to the GED program at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis started at Roosevelt High School and wound through several years of heroin use, school-hopping and homelessness.
The classes at Roosevelt felt too big to Graves. The school had counselors available, but Graves said she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to concentrate on school. She soon fell behind. “It was just too much with the big classrooms,” she said. “Once you missed one class, you fall behind. That’s pretty much where it was. When you miss a day, you have to keep going. That’s where my struggle was.”
During her sophomore year, Graves left Roosevelt and started attending the American Indian OIC’s alternative high school, Takoda Prep. She liked it and was doing well there because the classes were small and she got more individual attention. But Graves’ family moved to another part of the city and she was forced to change schools — twice.
“I wish I would have stayed at OIC,” she said. “I probably would have finished.”
Graves dropped out of that last high school. Her heroin habit turned into a full-fledged addiction. Soon, she was also homeless.
She stopped using drugs three years ago, when she found out she was pregnant. After her son, Aden, was born, Graves decided it was time to go back to school and get her diploma. At 23, she’s taking classes and studying for the GED tests.
Graves’ parents never finished high school. Her mom got pregnant with her at 15. Graves’ father was 18. He dropped out of school in order to find work and support the family; Graves is the oldest of four kids.
“Just like I’d seen my dad struggle with us, I don’t want to have to go through that,” said Graves. “I want to finish school, get a good job, so I can support my son. So he can have a good life.”
After she gets her GED certificate, Graves wants to get a degree and work as a drug counselor. She wants to help young people who are experiencing the same problems she went through as a teenager.
“I want to be able to be a drug counselor because I know how it is. I know how it feels. I know it’s hard,” she said. “The first few times it’s about getting high, but you get to the point where you need it to be normal. That’s what it got to me for. And I’m just thankful I found out I was pregnant. He changed my life.”
Read and listen to the complete MPR story here.