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Thousands Drop Out of Ohio's High Schools Every Year

Students and staff walk the hallways at Bedford High School.
Students and staff walk the hallways at Bedford High School.

Bedford High School's assistant principal Robert Rutkowski will proudly rattle off his students' accomplishments-- the Bearcats' football team broke records last year, and the school puts on a great musical. But he's much more guarded when talking about kids dropping out. But he concedes it's a persistent problem.

He recalled one student in particular-- a girl who got mixed up with the wrong crowd, he said, developed a substance abuse problem, and eventually left school.

"She always struggled with grades, always," he explained. "She always had run-ins with teachers, always was getting in trouble, always was getting suspended because of her run-ins with teachers."

Forty-seven Bedford High students dropped out in 2010, putting the school's dropout rate at about 4 percent.

That's not so high when compared to the 25 percent and higher dropout rates at some high schools in neighboring Cleveland.

Joshua Hawley's the executive director of Ohio Education Research Center based at Ohio State University. His group analyzed Ohio's dropout rate from 2006 through to 2010 for the Ohio's Department of Education. Statewide, more than 112,000 students dropped out from both traditional and charter schools during those five years, according to their published findings known as the Dropout Tracking Report. The dropout rate, it calculates, held steady at about three percent.

But Hawley said the dropout problem is not universal.

"If you look at the map for the state," he said. "It's a problem that's concentrated in some schools."

And most are located in or near the six largest public school districts in Ohio: Columbus, Dayton, Akron, Toledo, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Those urban district comprise a little more than 8 percent of all traditional public schools in the state, but account for more than 37 percent of all dropouts. Students in those predominantly African American or Hispanic districts are six and a half times more likely to drop out than their rural and suburban peers, the report said. Across the state, white students also drop out in significant numbers, but the dropout rate of blacks and Hispanics is much higher.

Colleen Wilber is Vice President of Communications for America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit group that looks to increase the nation's graduation rate. She said most dropouts of all races share a common characteristic.

"I think one of the things we see sort of across the board here is that these are students who are struggling with a lot of life issues and other issues outside of the classroom." she explained.

Wilber points to what she calls the "the ABCs of dropouts" - attendance, behavior, and course completion - as being among the best indicators of who is at risk.

"A kid who misses more days of school is obviously is at risk for dropping out more than other students," she said. "Behavior, a lot of these kids have behavioral issues, and again we're going back to these toxic environments, other things they're dealing with in their life, they tend to have more suspensions, more disciplinary issues, things that keep them out of school. And then course credit and completion, so how are they actually doing in school when they're there."

Dropping out, studies show, brings with it big economic costs. People who don't complete high school earn on average of $200,000 less than those who do over a lifetime, and a million less than college graduates. That lost productivity is not only detrimental to themselves, Wilbur said, it's a drag on the society at large.

"We know that kids who don't graduate are more likely to engage in criminal behavior, they're much more likely to require social services, they also tend to have more health problems," she said. "And it also tends to be a cycle. That's what we see. Kids who drop out, that cycle often continues with their own children, so it's important to break that cycle."

That cycle's real for Bedford's Rutkowski. Back in his office, he shows me a packet with "BHS Dropout Survival Guide" printed in big, black letters.

The pages are filled with a list of other options he discusses with students before they decide to leave school: alternative education programs, online schools, or taking the GED.

And he always reminds students that they'll make a lot less money than they would if they'd graduate.

But he says sometimes even this last-ditch effort isn't enough.

"You spend so many countless hours with these students to try to prevent that kind of thing from happening," he said. "And it just breaks your heart that it sometimes does."