San Jose dropouts cost community millions

Kids dropping out of San Jose schools in just one year may go on to commit 534 violent crimes a year and suffer $200 million in lost wages over their lifetimes, in addition to costing the community millions in health care costs and lost productivity, according to a new study released Thursday.

The California Dropout Research Project is the first to look at dropout rates for 17 major cities in California, then calculate the crime, health care and economic effects for each community. And unlike state data, which includes only high school dropouts, the new study includes figures for middle schools and projects the consequences for students who drop out.

Statewide, for every three students who graduated high school in 2006-07, one dropped out. For San Jose, the figure was slightly less, three dropouts for every 10 graduates, or 2,328 dropouts.

Thursday's study took state data for 2006-07 — the latest figures available — and used previous research to extrapolate the consequences of kids not earning their high school diplomas.

"We're interested in what happens to them in entering the economy. We don't care what grade they drop out of," said Russell Rumberger, professor of education at the University of California-Santa Barbara and director of the project.

The economic losses from one year of dropouts, or 123,651 students statewide in 2006-07 — amount to $24.2 billion over their lifetime, the study estimates. Nearly half of that, or $11.7 billion, is due to lost wages, because graduates earn more. For San Jose, the lifetime losses are estimated to be $399.1 million, more than half in lost earnings. The study also listed health care costs, $5.3 million for San Jose alone, which are picked up by taxpayers for underemployed residents who more often rely on public assistance. Furthermore, the study estimates that, based on previous accepted research, cutting the dropout rate in half for just one year in San Jose would eliminate 267 aggravated assaults and homicides annually.

Many in the community see the high costs of dropping out. When more kids quit school, the crime rate goes up, said Art Meza, a San Jose father of five who has been lobbying for better schools on San Jose's East Side. One way to do that, he believes, is through small and charter schools that better engage children and create closer relationships with teachers, he said.

He's involved in PACT, a group that has lobbied successfully for such small and charter schools in the Alum Rock School District and more recently has taken on the dropout crisis. Last week PACT — People Acting in Community Together — extracted pledges from two board members to reduce the dropout rate by 10 percent in the East Side Union High School District, where the rate is 19.4 percent. In 2006-07, East Side reported that 1,311 of its students had dropped out.

Nearly 1,000 county students, many who've been expelled from their home schools, attend alternative schools instead. However, they're in constant danger of dropping out and quitting the system entirely. The county is revamping its alternative school system, county Superintendent Charles Weis said, to better focus on students and train them for jobs.

"The real solution is to treat each student as an individual, and have adults around them who care about them," he said. A critical year is ninth grade, Weis and Rumberger agreed.

"Kids who fail classes in ninth grade are much more likely not to graduate," Rumberger said. San Jose Unified, which Rumberger held up as exemplary in tackling the dropout problem, tries to detect kids at risk of dropping out when they are still in the early elementary grades.

The district's dropout rate is 10.5 percent. What's needed to keep students in school, Superintendent Don Iglesias said, are "a sense of connectiveness, high expectations, relationships with teachers, sports and arts — having quality alternative programs for students who are struggling." He added, "The irony is all those things statewide are at risk" with the budget crisis.

Rumberger said the focus of the study was not to rehash dropout rates, but to alert communities to the cost of kids leaving school. The result of students dropping out, Weis said, is "kids whose lives will be dramatically different and will make the lives of the rest of us dramatically different."