Guest blog (John Thompson): The dropout crisis

John Thompson is an Oklahoma City teacher with 18 years of urban high school experience and an education blogger at He is a regular contributor to our blog on education issues.

All of the neighborhood high schools in the Oklahoma City Public School System and four other metro schools are categorized as “dropout factories” because they graduate less than 60 percent of their freshmen. And this is a huge improvement from the early 1990s when the OKCPS had a graduate rate of 39 percent. The Alliance For Excellent Education’s new report, “The Economic Benefits from Halving Oklahoma City’ Dropout Rate,” calculated the effects of reducing the city’s 4,800 dropouts by 50 percent. They estimate that reducing dropouts would generate $24 million in increased earnings, $17 million in additional spending, and $5 million in new investments. Reducing dropouts would increase home sales by $32 million and car sales by $2 million. The new graduates would produce 200 new jobs and generate $29 million in economic growth, as well as $3 million in new tax revenue.

New research by Columbia University’s Hechinger Institute, combined with previous studies, indicates that a key component of reducing dropouts is the expansion of high quality alternative schools. In New York City (where 80 percent of students are low-income) providing alternative slots to 5 percent of the student population has helped increase the city’s graduation rate by 36 percent.  New York discovered that:

…alternative schools for at-risk students worked wonders with struggling students. Regular high schools graduated 19 percent of overage, undercredited students. At alternative schools, the graduation rates were 56 percent – right at the city average.  Once students switched to an alternative school, they came to school more often and began earning credits more quickly. The solution was obvious: open more alternative schools.

Based on estimates from state and national sources, Oklahoma City (where 90 percent of students are low-income) probably needs a comparable percentage of alternative slots.

The bad news is that the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation assessment of MAPS for KIDS, “Community, Consistency, Creativity” concluded that “the state of alternative education in Oklahoma City is dismal at best.” The good news is that their 2009 report issued a practical and humane call to action. It recommended a “strategic plan and a clear vision with specific goals to serve at-risk students.” School systems must collaborate with a diverse range of service agencies to address students’ emotional and mental health needs, the report advised, and alternative education can not become a “dumping ground.”

New national reports should prompt us to reread our excellent local analyses of dropout prevention. The Public School Foundation assessment provides a holistic set of recommendations. We must start with the realization that in the OKCPS “61.5 percent of the youngest students were classified as “at-risk” for reading difficulties in 2008-09.”. We must “provide a caring adult in each child’s life.” The report proclaimed that “Recent dropouts were asked what would have made a difference in motivating them to stay in school? The answer is often ‘knowing there one adult who cared’.”

As research becomes more overwhelming, it becomes harder to claim that we care about troubled students as we starve alternative services.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.