Thousands of high school seniors in the Mahoning Valley are proudly walking across stages this month to collect their reward for 12 years of dutiful attendance, responsible conduct and academic growth.
The ceremonies at schools large and small in our region and our nation serve as a reminder of the value of a high school diploma and of the urgency to increase the shamefully low graduation rates in secondary schools across the United States.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama challenged the American educational system to strive toward achieving a 90-percent graduation rate by the end of this decade. It is a goal just as worthy as that set by John F. Kennedy five decades ago to land a man on the moon by 1970. Like that goal, it, too, can be achieved with commitment, innovation and focus.
In 1969 when Ohioan Neil Armstrong touched foot on the lunar surface, the United States ranked No. 1 in the developed world in the percentage of young people who entered high school and who graduated four years later. Today, according to the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America ranks a distressingly low 21st. In comparison, Portugal and Slovenia tie for first.
As Obama told students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., “If you quit on school, you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.”
Students indeed sacrifice many personal and societal benefits when opting out of attaining that one valuable piece of paper. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a high-school diploma recipient without a college degree:
Earns an average of $8,400 a year more than a high school dropout.
Contributes more to a state’s economy and requires less public assistance than high school dropouts.
Becomes substantially less likely to be imprisoned or require public assistance.
Realizes a net lifetime benefit of more than $470,000.
RATES VARY WIDELY IN VALLEY
In the Mahoning Valley, graduation rates show significant disparities. According to the most recent Ohio Department of Education Report Cards, Boardman Local Schools had an impressively high rate of about 90 percent — already at Obama’s goal. But in the contiguous district to its north, Youngstown City Schools had a distressingly low rate of about 65 percent.
To its credit, Youngstown schools have been working to increase academic performance. City Schools Superintendent Connie Hathorn has shown clear results in implementing stimulating programs designed to enhance student interest and achievement, and, by extension, increase graduation rates. A new set of innovative – and cost-saving – programs will launch this fall.
But in Youngstown, as in any school district, education leaders can only do so much. Parents and guardians of young people must work diligently to instill a culture that values learning and achievement. That includes monitoring their work closely, keeping lines of communication with teachers open, dishing out applause for good performance and punishing children when they purposely fail to apply themselves.
Reaching Obama’s goal of a 90-percent graduation rate in the U.S. seven years from now will not be easy. But with hard work, strong cooperation and an unflinching will to succeed among schools, communities and families, we’re confident it can be attained.