Making Change: Graduation or Bust: The Economic Impact of High School Failure

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Carol Rivchun: What business needs is an educated workforce.

According to Carol Rivchun, high school failure affects us all. Rivchun is president of Cleveland's Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which provides educational support and job training to teens who might-or already have-dropped out of high school. Prior to taking the helm at Y.O.U. six years ago, Rivchun was with COSE, the small business arm of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. She says effectively preparing kids for a rapidly changing workplace is vital - to educators, businesspeople, and the region as a whole. And that means helping them graduate high school or get their a GED.

Carol Rivchun: Because if you don't get any certification, you're not only dooming yourself to a life of poverty, but you're also making it impossible for our region to move forward.

And some employers are having trouble finding people with the skills they need, says Zach Schiller, research director of Policy Matters Ohio. Years ago across the region, he says, manufacturing jobs in particular provided a decent living to people without an education. But not only has the manufacturing sector shrunk significantly, Schiller says, its jobs have become more demanding.

Zach Schiller: And so it's harder to find people to do those jobs at the same time as we have many people who desperately need employment.

Several years ago, Schiller authored a brief for Policy Matters Ohio about the earnings disparity between people who complete high school or get a GED, and those who don't. It's a wage gap that has widened substantially over the years. From 1979 to 2000, according to the report, non-high school grad earnings dropped by 1/3 - to $8 an hour from $11.98.

Lynita Edwards: If you want to be somebody, the way this country is now? You gotta do what you gotta do.

Lynita Edwards has a ready smile, a confident, easy manner, and a wide-open future - now. But a couple of years ago all she had was stress. She was raising two young children and dealing with the death of her father, all while trying to finish high school. Her education was derailed for a while, but she's since worked hard to get her GED.

Lynita Edwards: You can't do nothing without no diploma or no GED. They cuttin' everybody from everything. So, you wanna do something, wanna make some money, you better get on your job.

Edwards now plans to go to college. She's not sure what she'll study, she says, but she's thinking about a career in television journalism - a fast-paced, competitive, demanding field. It's clear Edwards sees success as her first, last, and only option.

Lynita Edwards: You just gotta jump when the opportunity comes, and be on it. So, that's what I do.

It's a good thing Edwards is interested in furthering her education, according to Bob Meyer, of the Work in Northeast Ohio Council. Employers, Meyer says, see high school completion as the barest minimum, though that's not exactly a secret.

Still, kids in some districts continue to leave high school in droves. Some of Ohio's urban schools are barely graduating two-thirds of their students. Y.O.U.'s Carol Rivchun says kids leave school for all kinds of reasons - they're doing poorly, feeling unsafe, or need to financially support their families. But, she says, they find out quickly that dropping out doesn't improve anything, and often makes things worse.

Carol Rivchun: They get an entry level job, they start to try to get enough money to live on their own, and they can't quite make it. And they're finding that earning $6 an hour just isn't cutting it. And so they start to realize that the better-paying jobs require more education.

Y.O.U. offers a computer-based GED training program that begins by assessing where students are academically, and then takes them step-by-step to where they need to go. The pace, Y.O.U. staff say, is set by students. Some finish in weeks; others take months.

Before Y.O.U. or any program can work its magic, though, a person who has dropped out has to find a way back in. All too often they don't, and that increases their chances of being incarcerated, unemployed, and reliant on various social services - in all of those ways draining society's coffers. And, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center, each year's class of drop outs also costs the United States $200-billion-plus over a lifetime, in lower personal earnings and less taxes paid.

In Cleveland, Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz, 90.3.

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