Alaska's dropout rate is double U.S. average

Educators gather to brainstorm how to stop the epidemic

Posted: Monday, November 17, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Failure can start early.

Some educators say they can see which kids aren't going to make it on the first day of kindergarten. Some children show up knowing how to read, while others come not even knowing what the colors are.

Battling one of the worst dropout rates in the country, Alaska educators gathered to brainstorm how to stop the epidemic of kids quitting school before earning their diplomas. They called dropping out a result of an accumulative failure, which can start before kids even enter school.

"This is a social issue, one we all own," said Association of Alaska School Boards executive director Carl Rose. "We all need to take some responsibility in this."

Among the grim statistics:

• Alaska's dropout rate, at 8 percent, was double the national average in the 2005-2006 school year, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Education.

• 38 percent of today's ninth-graders will have no high school diploma 10 years from now, according to the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education.

• Alaska ranks 50th, or last, in the number of ninth-graders who will likely have a bachelor's degree in 10 years, according to the commission.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski convened the Saturday hearing. She asked state and national education experts what the federal government could do to help fix the problem, even though the federal government has little input into public education, an arena largely left to the states, and, in Alaska, mostly to local school districts. (The big exception to this is the controversial federal No Child Left Behind law, which went into effect in 2002 and was meant to raise educational attainment for all students through testing.)

Among the suggestions for federal help was to fund more pre-kindergarten programs; to support more vocational and technical classes in high schools; and to continue to provide special grants for the education of Alaska Natives, who have among the highest dropout rates.

"We are failing our kids and we should be ashamed of ourselves," said Tina Michels-Hansen, of Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which offers tutoring and other schooling help for Anchorage School District Alaska Natives.

"Schools have become factories that communities passively accept," she said.

Part of the issue, according to University of Alaska president Mark Hamilton, is cultural. Parents and families are not valuing education. They need to realize even skilled labor fields, like plumbing or construction, require training that depends on knowledge, such as math, learned in high school.

"We have to stop saying, 'College isn't for everyone,"' he said. "Post-secondary education is for nearly everyone unless your goal is to be the head fry guy at McDonald's."



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