A close look at Fayette County’s high school graduation rates

As the first-time father of a twelfth-grader, I remember getting an education on the economics of high school graduation. It all started in September with senior pictures.

I don’t know how this tradition was started, but it is was somehow necessary for my son to dress in a tux he did not own to have his picture taken in front of a backdrop of a place he has never been, for a picture that will be displayed on refrigerators of people he hardly knows (but who will hopefully send money for graduation).

Senior pictures are just the first step on the road to graduation — still to come are the senior dues, graduation announcements, the senior prom, cap and gown rental and of course the graduation reception. Paying for college should be a breeze compared to this year.

As expensive as it is to graduate a child from high school, the cost of not graduating is much greater. Those who do not graduate from high school are likely to spend their lives hovering around the poverty line with all of the social, physical and economic problems that presents. It is hard to imagine why anyone would drop out of school, yet, that is the reality for one out of three young people in Georgia today.

Of course, not all counties in Georgia have low graduation rates. In Fayette County, 88 percent of our students graduate from high school. This is not only at the top for the state, it ranks among the best in the nation. But despite the performance of some local schools, Georgia still has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country.

Why does this happen? It certainly is not from lack of attention or effort. I have lived here long enough to witness three different governors all vow to move Georgia up the list. But, in the end, all of their reforms combined have had little impact on graduation rates statewide.

Schools are usually the first entity that is blamed for Georgia’s low graduation rate. But research over the years has found that schools have only a limited impact on a student’s performance, good or bad. One comprehensive review found that differences in school structures or programs account for only 7 to 15 percent of the variations in academic achievement.

If high school dropout rates were purely a product of the schools, then we would expect schools with low graduation rates to be dispersed somewhat randomly across the United States. But, that is not the case – 7 of the 10 states with the lowest high school graduation rates are located in the South.

And the low graduation rates in the South are not just a one-year fluke; this has been the pattern for decades. It has to be more than just Georgia not knowing how to operate its schools as some would contend.

Funding for education does not explain the differences in graduation rates either. Many of the states with high graduation rates spend less per pupil than those with low rates. As a state, Georgia ranks 16th in spending per pupil, yet is at or near the bottom in graduation rates. The same holds true at the county level.

There are 40 counties in Georgia that spend more per pupil than Fayette County does, yet Fayette outranks them all with regard to high school graduation rates.

So, if differences in school programs or funding don’t explain Georgia’s low graduation rate – what are some of the other factors that might come into play? To answer that question, we have to look for other distinctive characteristics of the South. What are the other ways the South is different from regions of the country that have higher graduation rates?

One factor related to high dropout rates is teenage pregnancy. The distribution of teen pregnancies in the United States is strikingly similar to distribution of low graduation rates. Of the 10 states with the highest teenage pregnancy rates, 6 are located in the South. And, yes, Georgia consistently ranks among the states with the highest rates. One need not be a sociologist to understand how having a baby as a teenager can disrupt one’s education.

Conversely, states with the highest percentages of two-parent households tend to have the highest graduation rates. It is not that married couples love their children more or have a greater desire for their children to succeed – it is a result of simple mathematics. Two people can invest more time than one person in a child’s education. It also means that there are twice as many people in the household who might remember enough about algebra or science to actually help their kids study.

States with lower median incomes and higher poverty rates also have the lowest high school graduation rates. Some who live in these states may dropout to help support their family; others just have no hope that life can be better or no likelihood of a good job if they do graduate.

Another important factor that gets much less public attention is the culture of low educational expectations. This is a difficult concept to measure, but research has consistently found that the social expectations of a teen’s peers have the greatest impact on his or her likelihood of academic success.

The expectations of parents are important, but it is peer pressure that is most significant. When those expectations are high when it comes to educational achievement, then kids tend to value education more and set higher goals for themselves.

We see this at play in our own back yard. In Fayette County, 94 percent of high school graduates go on to higher education. This ranks among the highest in the nation. Most of our students take it for granted that high school is not the end of the road – it is just the first step.

This is probably not something kids talk about when they are together – but this culture of high expectations does influence their behavior. Although often unstated, there is positive peer pressure in counties such as ours for students to plan to go to college. Those who do not plan to continue their education are viewed as being somewhat deviant.

Cultural expectations also influence behavior. Teens who plan to continue their education act differently than those who do not. They are more likely to be aware of their grades. They also are less like to engage in behaviors that will put their plans in jeopardy, such as getting arrested or becoming pregnant.

Creating a culture of high academic expectations can be difficult where there is no tradition of educational achievement. This is one reason why efforts to reverse the trend of low high school graduation rates in the South have had only minimal effects at best.

Cultural changes tend to occur slowly and evolve over generations. And, changing the culture cannot happen in a vacuum if it is going to have an impact on the schools; it must be accompanied by fewer births to teenagers and greater economic opportunities that reward those who complete their education.

The same factors that are true at the national level are true in our local community as well. We should support our schools and provide them with the funds they need, but this is only one piece of the educational puzzle.

We must also continue to convey the value of an education to our children, and provide the stable marriages and economic opportunities that give them the foundation they need for success.

[Dr. Kevin Demmitt is the Assistant Vice President of Academic Outreach, Clayton State University - Fayette.]

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Submitted by other side trax on Thu, 01/10/2008 - 3:29pm.

A culture that supports success must evolve and become pervasive to achieve higher graduation rates statewide. And parental involvement is the cornerstone. Believe greater parental involvement and more stable families are present in Fayette County whichs leads to a higher graduation rate.
From the other side of the tracks

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