The Regrets of a School Dropout

Larue Campbell, 19, left Largo High School last spring with no diploma. Now living with his aunt, he's cutting back on television and studying for his GED.
Larue Campbell, 19, left Largo High School last spring with no diploma. Now living with his aunt, he's cutting back on television and studying for his GED. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 15, 2007

Just walking into Largo High School left Larue Campbell feeling the most profound loss.

Fliers about the school's upcoming prom reminded him that he never attended his own. Posters announcing commencement ceremonies left him wondering what it would have been like to stroll across the stage in a cap and gown as his loved ones cheered.

But instead of taking part in prom and graduation, Campbell was at Largo for night school classes to prepare for the GED exam. Last spring, he dropped out of high school, one of hundreds of Washington area African American males to do so each year.

"If I hadn't dropped out, I wouldn't have to go through this now," said Campbell of his attempt to earn a high school equivalency diploma. "I thought about going back after I left" school, "but I thought I would be too old. I was kind of embarrassed."

In dropping out, Campbell became part of a disturbing trend -- black male students who walk out on their own education. Statistics show that more than 50 percent of black male students fail to graduate with their class each year. In some urban jurisdictions such as New York and Chicago, upwards of two-thirds of them leave high school before graduation, according to a study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

In Maryland, 46 percent of black male teenagers dropped out during the 2003-04 school year, compared with 22 percent of white males. In Virginia, 47 percent dropped out, compared with 27 percent of white male students, and in the District, the dropout rate for black males was 51 percent, compared with 5 percent of white males, the report said.

Experts said the implications are stark: Dropouts struggle to find good jobs; they become teen fathers, get arrested and abuse drugs and alcohol at a much higher rate than that of their counterparts who graduate from high school.

Alvin Thornton, a Howard University administrator and author of the study that led Maryland to pump more than a billion additional dollars into its schools, blames a number of factors, among them the lack of early learning opportunities, absent parenting and a shortage of programs to engage these students in school.

"I think if we ever had any other community that found its male children suffering as they are in our community -- they would institute programs and demand that others, like government, help to address the problem," Thornton said.

Many dropouts, he said, experience problems as early as the elementary years. "It's called the fourth-grade syndrome, and it's the time when schools move away from them and they become lost and alienated."

Sleeping Late

It's 3 p.m. on a weekday and Campbell is watching Nickelodeon with his 5-year-old niece. He had planned to look for a job today, but didn't. He has no car because he can't afford one. His cellphone was recently turned off because he didn't pay the bill.

Most days, Campbell, who lives with his aunt, Lillian Hicks, sleeps late, eats, then watches TV. He might compose or listen to some rap music, a hobby. Or he might check the want ads.

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