Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell
Kevin Harris, 19, receives congratulations as he walks across the stage of the Bayside Baptist Church in Harrison, Tenn., during the Hamilton County High School class of 2008 graduation.
* 1.2 million — Number of Tennessee adults without a high school diploma
* $7.3 billion — Lifetime income loss from last year’s class of high school dropouts in Tennessee
* $7,000 — Extra yearly earnings in Tennessee from a GED or high school diploma
* 20 — Percentage of high school credentials issued in Tennessee that are GED certificates
* 14,662 — Tennessee students earned their GED diploma in 2007-2008, up 38 percent from the previous year.
Sources: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Alliance for Excellent Education
Mary Elizabeth White dropped out of school twice before realizing the value of a high school diploma.
A self-described “arrogant teenager,” she left Ooltewah High School at age 17, eventually re-enrolling at Hamilton County High School. The adult high school couldn’t hold her for long either, and she dropped out again a year later, this time to get married.
But when Mrs. White’s husband, Casey, lost his job, she knew her pay from McDonald’s wasn’t enough to support them both, and she enrolled in high school for the third time.
“You know how you hear people say, ‘If you don’t finish high school, you’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life?’” the now 21-year-old asked. “It’s true.”
With increasing skill demands in the workplace and growing competition for jobs in the current recession, a high school diploma has become a requirement for getting even an entry-level job at most businesses.
A recent study estimates that students who dropped out of high school last year in Tennessee will lose a total of $7.3 billion in wages over their lifetimes.
But nearly one-third of Tennessee students don’t get a high school diploma within four years, records show.
“There is no doubt if we are going to compete for the jobs of the future, we have to do more to improve student learning and educational attainment in Tennessee,” said Tennessee Comptroller John Morgan, who co-wrote a report last year on the state’s educational challenges. “There just aren’t many jobs anymore for students who don’t finish high school, and what jobs there are typically pay much lower wages.”
Despite having to move in with her mother-in-law and nearly dropping out a third time to help pay the bills, Mrs. White finally earned her diploma this week from Hamilton County High, and she plans to look for a higher-paying job immediately. One day she hopes to study nursing at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, she said.
“We sacrificed a lot,” she said. “But you can’t do anything in life without a high school diploma.”
When students drop out of high school, they earn about $7,000 less per year and $260,000 over their lifetimes, according to a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy group, and the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Their lower income affects their community as well, by giving states — and the country as a whole — limited purchasing power, lower tax receipts and lower levels of worker productivity, the study states.
Over the next decade, the alliance estimates, more than 12 million American students will drop out of school at a cost to the nation of more than $3 trillion.
Local students are costing Hamilton County more these days, as the graduation rate decreased this year by nearly 3 percent, according to the state report card.
District administrators attribute the drop to a new classification for the adult high school. Students at the school who take longer than four years and a summer to graduate — most of the school’s population — this year were counted as dropouts, even if they eventually earned their diplomas.
There is no use quibbling over whether the current 72.6 percent graduation rate is accurate, said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation.
“I certainly don’t want to convey that 70 (percent) or 73 (percent) is a good enough number,” he said. “Whatever the number is, it is not high enough.”
Tennessee’s graduation rate, which is nearly 10 percent higher than in Hamilton County’s, has continued to climb about a percentage point each year and now is at 82.2 percent, according to the state report card.
By 2014, the goal for all Tennessee schools is a 90 percent graduation rate, which Rachel Woods, the department’s spokeswoman, says is perfectly reasonable.
“There are whole schools where their average is already above 90,” she said. “If any one school can do it, then a school system can do it.”
Why it’s important
Robin Marshall, 45, was among the 1.2 million Tennessee adults without a high school diploma through most of her career.
Although she dropped out of school in 10th grade at age 16, Ms. Marshall moved up the ranks in retail merchandising to become a five-state district field manager for Minneapolis-based Gage Inc., before her job was phased out in 2000. To land another, she found she needed her GED.
“I constantly thought about it, especially when people in the same situation as I were making $10,000 a year more than I did,” said Ms. Marshall, who now works as a training assessor at Chattanooga State. “It took a lot of nerve to take the test and go back to school. But I’m glad I did.”
In a global economy, local dropouts not only will have to compete with students from Birmingham or Boston but also with millions of others from places such as Bangalore and Bangkok.
With the arrival of Volkswagen, Alstom Power and other global companies in Chattanooga, skill demands are rising from the factory floor to the office mailroom. Most of the new manufacturers require either work experience or post-secondary degrees.
“People have always talked about how the jobs of the future will require higher skills and training,” Mr. Challener said. “Well, in Chattanooga, the future is now. The jobs that are here now or are coming shortly demand more and more education.”
Despite an apparent graduation rate decrease, Hamilton County is showing some progress, educators say.
In the past five years since a $14 million high school reform effort was implemented with money from the Carnegie and Public Education foundations, the number of high school students earning regular diplomas has increased steadily, from 1,941 in 2004 to 2,483 in 2008, records show.
The number of those who eventually graduated with regular diplomas increased even though the rate of students graduating within four years of entering high school still was down slightly.
Statewide, more Tennesseans also are using Adult Basic Education programs to earn high school equivalency certificates, or GEDs. From 2002 to 2007, the number of Tennesseans earnings GEDs jumped by more than 62 percent to 14,662 last year, the state labor agency reports.
The high school reforms included the addition of ninth-grade academies, career academies, professional development for teachers, higher graduation standards and college-counseling advisers. The money used to start these programs ran out in 2007, but Mr. Challener said their positive impact still is seen as more students are completing high school prepared for jobs of the future.
Central High School boasts one of the county’s greatest graduation rate increases, going from 72.2 percent in 2007 to 76.9 percent in 2008. Principal Finley King largely credits his school’s ninth-grade academy for the jump.
Because freshmen are confined to one area of the building and share one set of teachers, Mr. King said what exists is “sort of a middle school concept” that makes for an easier transition year.
“Those teachers get to know the students in a very personal way, they make sure when those kids leave ninth grade, they’re prepared for 10th grade and academically they’ve earned enough credits to enter 10th grade,” he said. “Ninth grade is a huge indicator of whether kids graduate from high school on time or at all.”
Hamilton County helped lead the state in adopting stricter high school standards, which will require all Tennessee high school graduates to have four semesters of math by 2010.
But some educators fear tougher classes may encourage already-struggling students to drop out, fueling a greater dropout problem.
Mr. Challener said he believes the opposite is true.
“For students to be successful, they have to be in classrooms that are engaging and rigorous,” he said. “Far more often than not, when you raise expectations, young people meet them. I think we will be pleasantly surprised as we raise the standards to see how many students are able to meet the higher standards.”
The idea that the new standards will bring down the graduation rate is “more of a rumor,” Ms. Woods said.
“Children who are going to drop out of school are going to drop out of school,” she said. “If you have a defeated attitude and aren’t going to work with the teacher, you’d be likely to drop out regardless of the standards.”
With state revenues lagging, schools will be challenged to raise student graduation standards and expectations with limited funds, officials said. For instance, the state Department of Education likely no longer will pay teachers extra money to stay after school and tutor students next year. Math teacher Karen Kunkewitz said she worries about the ramifications.
“If they don’t pay for it, who would do it (tutor)?” she asked.
But education proponents insist that from health care to business recruitment and personal income, higher educational achievement is key for community growth.
“This is the best investment for our economic health and our community well-being,” Mr. Challener said.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...