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Monday, 25 January 1999

Dismal dropout rates

The recent dip in Arizona's dropout rates is no cause for celebration. It is, however, cause to redouble efforts to continue lowering the rates. As it is now, the number of high school dropouts is way beyond acceptable, especially for minority students.

The overall figure stands at 11.5 percent statewide. But the figure for Hispanics is a whopping 17 percent; 18.8 percent for Native Americans, and 14.6 percent for Anglos. Statewide the figure has dropped from 12.8 percent in 1997. It's a good trend, but it's not enough. And while the numbers in Tucson generally fall below those of the state, Sunnyside District figures remain abysmal.

Almost 20 percent of the high school students, nearly one in five in the southside district, leaves high school. The enormity of that figure is difficult to comprehend, but it serves to cement the cycle of underachievement which many students cannot break. Although Sunnyside disputes the figures, the fact remains, the rate is not at all acceptable. Even if it were three to four points lower, the numbers could only be described as outrageous.

One troubling aspect of the trend is that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan admits she does not know why the rate is falling. But she acknowledges that getting the figure to move downward is an enormous undertaking and that some districts are doing things right. She is, however, right on target in calling for studies to determine exactly how the schools with dropping rates are doing it. That will be a useful tool, especially for districts like Sunnyside with a seemingly insurmountable task. Her comment that dropping rates are not tied to funding is curious, in that the schools featured in the Star's story are most assuredly spending money to solve a critical problem.

TUSD district uses a special tax to raise money for tutoring, attendance monitoring, and the expansion of alternative education programs. One dropout specialist notes that personal attention is the most critical aspect in preventing dropouts. Personal attention, whether in school or in medicine, always costs extra. Money is the proper way to address the issue. In terms of costs, there is no social problem with an easier money trail to follow. Dropouts earn less money, are more likely to become dependent on government for sustenance and are more likely to become criminals. The costs grow exponentially as dropouts become welfare recipients, become criminals or because they just can't contribute to the tax coffers. With our high dropout rate, it's easy to see why more than $600 million in taxpayer funds will be used for maintaining the state's prison system in the next couple of years. The slight decrease in dropouts is a welcome development. But it's far from enough. Dropouts are still a major and costly social problem that will cost the community even more if not properly and immediately addressed.