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Take on high school dropout crisis

Alejandro Escalona

Alejandro Escalona

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Updated: January 14, 2013 7:20AM

Imagine for a moment the economic and social devastation of having 47 percent unemployment.

No, I’m not talking here about an impoverished country in Africa or Central America. That is the percent of high school dropouts ages 18 to 64 in Chicago that didn’t work at all in 2009-10.

That is a recipe for creating an underclass. And it has gotten worse in the last decade.

In Chicago, the employment percentage among dropouts age 16 to 19 declined by more than half over the last 12 years — from 38.9 percent in 1999-2000 to 18.2 percent in 2011-12.

This growing underclass lives in neighborhoods that are a far cry from the prosperous and cosmopolitan Magnificent Mile.

These alarming numbers come from the report “High School Dropouts in Chicago and Illinois and Their Persistent Labor Market Problems,” commissioned by the Alternative Schools Network and prepared by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

It is not the kind of reading I would recommend for the holidays. Nonetheless, the report is an urgent call to action to address the dropout issue head on — particularly in the Latino community. The study points out that while political power is on the rise in the Latino community, economic opportunity has declined for Latino high school dropouts. In particular, male foreign-born Latinos have seen their unemployment rate rise while their wages fell across the city, suburbs and state.

Foreign-born Latino males, age 19 to 24, are more than twice as likely to lack a diploma as native-born Latino men, and nearly half of foreign-born Latino males did not finish high school, according to the study.

“Latinos are getting more political power as a group, but economically they are moving certainly into the margins,” Jack Wuest, executive director at the Alternative Schools Network in Chicago, told me. Wuest pointed out that without a high school degree these young people are in a weak position economically now and in the future.

In Chicago, nearly 15 percent of young people age 19 to 24 (about 38,000) don’t have a high school diploma, with men (18 percent) more likely than women (10 percent) not to finish high school.

The report was presented Monday to a group of state government and education officials at the Union League Club of Chicago.

The dropout rate among Latinos is a recurring nightmare. As a journalist, I have covered this issue for two decades. Reports come and go, but the problem persists.

As the report shows, the lifetime earnings of dropouts are considerably less. High school graduates will earn twice as much during their lifetime than dropouts. A high school equivalency degree helps but a diploma is better.

This has a huge impact. Experts point to an array of social ills such as crime, gangs and teenage pregnancy stemming from dropping out of high school.

The report offers recommendations to help dropouts to get a high school diploma. It calls for the implementation of five multi-site charter schools for high school dropouts in Chicago and continued funding for programs specifically designed to help students return to school.

I would suggest our elected officials take a hard look at this study and its recommendations. Our city and state cannot afford to shelve it.

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