Editorial: Below the belt — High dropout rates in the South are old news, but huge problem
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Dec 19, 2013 | 2661 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston High School. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
Anniston High School. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
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For lifelong Southerners, thick skin is a must. The South’s inherent traits, faults and culinary habits — some that are, as we say, fine eatin’ — often are punchlines for comedians and social pundits nationwide.

What’s tough, thick skin or not, is when those punchlines ring true.

The South, according to writer Jordan Weissman of The Atlantic magazine, is “America’s high-school dropout factory.” It’s a harsh, brutal statement. If anything, his story Thursday painted the South, by and large, as a region where neither educators, politicians nor parents have been able to significantly lower the percentage of Southern students who fail to graduate from high school.

“We can talk all we want about American education, “ Weissman wrote. “But in terms of achievement, we’re not really one country.”

Alabama’s public schools exist not-so-comfortably within what The Atlantic describes as America’s Southern dropout belt — an area we longtime Southerners know well: a border that travels from Texas, through Arkansas and into parts of Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. There’s no reason to belabor the South’s historic educational difficulties, which are hopelessly tied to its conservative, low-tax politics.

Data in The Atlantic show that completion rates for Southern high schools are typically below 85 percent, which is below the national average of 87 percent. If only either of those figures was true for a majority of schools in Alabama, including Anniston’s.

But there is reason to look at The Atlantic’s stating of the obvious and speak a truth: Blame for the Southern dropout belt must go to the South’s generations of political cowardice before it goes to either the schools or the students they serve.

Here in Calhoun County, Anniston City Schools are the convenient example of Southern schools’ troubled existence. Today, Anniston’s middle school is considered academically failing by state officials, its system is in desperate need of consolidation to cut costs, and it is seeking a successor for retiring Superintendent Joan Frazier. Its graduation rate in the 2011-12 year was 65 percent. Only 34 Alabama high schools fared worse.

No one — especially a writer from The Atlantic — needs to tell us that we must do a better job of educating our students, especially at-risk students prone to dropping out. We get it. Low graduation rates and high dropout rates link conveniently with all sorts of civic concerns. This is repair job No. 1. Nothing else compares.

Our patience is running thin, but when will lawmakers in Montgomery decide that the status-quo — substandard public education in a majority of Alabama’s counties — is no longer acceptable?

Educators, students and their families must do their part. But until lawmakers decide to properly fund public education — and deal with the political heat that will surely rise up — Alabama’s schools are swimming upstream.
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