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R.I. leads in gender gap among high school dropouts

Providence officials worry about dropout rates and are trying to make high school more relevant

Rhode Island led the nation in the gender gap for high school dropout rates in the 2009-10 academic year, according to a 2013 study by the Department of Education.

The data showed that 5.5 percent of male high school students dropped out, compared to 3.8 percent of female students — a difference of 1.7 percentage points. Out of the total 2,166 students who dropped out of high school during that school year, 1,303 were men and 863 were women, according to the study.

The national average dropout rate was 3.8 percent for male students and 2.9 percent for female students. Though men drop out of school at higher rates than women in all 50 states, Rhode Island’s gender gap — the same as Connecticut’s — was nearly twice as large as the national average.

Despite Rhode Island’s large gender gap, it is difficult to draw conclusions that suggest the state is different from others, said John Tyler, professor of education, economics and public policy. Keeping accurate dropout records is notoriously “messy,” and the data can be difficult to collect as students may leave without telling officials, he said. But in general, men tend to drop out of school at higher rates than women do, he added.

In the past, analysts explained the gap by pointing to the additional labor market opportunities available to 17-year-old males without a high school diploma — such as factory or construction jobs — not available to women, Tyler said.

With the decline of the manufacturing sector and the creation of jobs in the service industry that require more education than physical strength, there is more of an “impetus for women to stay in school and get educated because the labor market’s more friendly to them,” Tyler said. Though this explanation sheds light on why women might stay in high school longer, it does not necessarily explain why men drop out at higher rates, he added.

Paula Shannon, chief academic officer of Providence schools, said officials in the district are worried about high dropout rates and are trying to make the school experience more “relevant and engaging” for young men.

“A lot of the national research shows that engagement is a huge issue for young men, particularly for young black men and young Hispanic men,” she said.

The district is collaborating with a “strategic data fellow” from Harvard through a partnership with the Annenburg Institute for School Reform at Brown to develop a plan to research college readiness, Shannon said.

Elliot Krieger, executive assistant for communications for the Rhode Island Department of Education, said the state does not have programs “targeted to one gender or one race,” but officials at the state level are concerned about high dropout rates in general — especially in the state’s urban areas.

Many students who leave high school do so because they need to work full-time or take care of children, Krieger said.

The state requires districts and schools to “identify students at risk of dropping out” long before high school and provide them additional reading and mathematics support, Krieger said. Students who fall behind grade level early on are more likely to drop out in high school, he added.

Central Falls High School had significant success lowering the dropout rate by working with the most at-risk students as well as students who have already dropped out “to get them back in programs that more closely meet their needs” such as weekend and summer school programs, Krieger said. This strategy helped bring graduation rates at the school up from 54 percent to more than 70 percent in only two years, he said.

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