The Regrets of a School Dropout
Half of Black Males Fail to Graduate With Their Class

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.

"I've gone to a few places, but I haven't found anything yet," he said.

Tall and lanky with thick tinted locks, Campbell has an easygoing demeanor and a gentle smile. He is uncharacteristically polite for a teenager, answering questions with "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am."

Since he dropped out, Campbell has held several part-time jobs, including ones at Ben's Chili Bowl and McDonald's. He recently got a call to interview at a restaurant at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, but he didn't go.

"I didn't have no money to get up there," Campbell said.

His aunt's eyes flashed.

"Larue, did you open up your mouth and call them and tell them that?" Hicks asked, hands on her hips. "Did you try to get there? There is nothing wrong with your feet. If you really wanted that job, you would have gone after it. If you wanted to get to the go-go and you didn't have money, you would have figured out how to get there."

The teenager shrugged.

Campbell pines for a more comfortable life, one with more stability and less drama than the one he's lived.

For several years, his home has been the split-level house near the District line that Hicks owns and shares with her family and his grandmother, who is legally blind and chronically ill. Campbell's brother, a student at Largo, lives nearby with other relatives. His mother and father, who live out of state, both dropped out of high school. His mother left him with his grandmother at an early age. His father has spent time in jail, he said.

"When you have absent parents, there's no one who can really discipline the child . . .," Hicks said. "I took a risk and let him come here to live because I believe he can turn himself around."

Campbell points to his sophomore year at Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School in Northeast Washington as the beginning of his school troubles. After a successful ninth-grade year, he began skipping to hang out with older friends about the time he and his grandmother moved to Prince George's County from the District.

"When I started hooking, my grandmother got mad," he said. "She went up to my school and told them, 'He don't want to be here. He lives in Maryland, anyway.' They put me out."

He transferred to Potomac High School in Oxon Hill, where he found more opportunities to skip. Nobody addressed his chronic truancy, he said. He was suspended only twice for truancy, even though he missed dozens of days his sophomore year and more than a third of his junior year.

"It was like it wasn't a big deal to anybody, so it wasn't a big deal to me," he said. Because there were no consequences, quitting was easy.

Not Getting the Basics

Prince George's County District Judge Herman Dawson, who regularly deals with the issue in his courtroom, said skipping school and lack of educational support at home leaves many young people unprepared to survive high school.

"They are not getting the basics in elementary school, so by the time they get to high school, they have lost interest," Dawson said. "They can't compete. Because they can't compete, they become disruptive and eventually they end up leaving."

Neville Adams, an English teacher at Parkdale High School in New Carrollton, said many black male students are pushed out.

"If you don't come to school or you walk the halls," you "will be withdrawn from school, and that basically leaves them with no place to go," he said. " Later, they just don't go back. We don't try to find out why kids aren't learning or why they're not coming to class, we just write them off."

In Prince George's, 39 percent of African American male students dropped out during the 2003-04 school year, according to the Schott report. That compared with 43 percent for white male students. Yet the county, along with Montgomery, where 36 percent of black males dropped out, was credited with success in retaining such students and graduating them at a rate similar to the national average for white male high school graduates, the report said.

Educators said that while Prince George's does better than many jurisdictions, the dropout rate is still too high.

"We have got to do a better job of engaging these students, helping them to overcome the problems that make them lag behind and eventually drop out," said Howard Stone, a former Prince George's school board member.

Campbell said several of his friends also dropped out, like his best friend, Larry Smith, 20, of Capitol Heights, who left school in his senior year. Smith took the GED exam and passed it a few months later.

On a recent afternoon, the two talked about their regrets and their futures. Smith wants to be a race-car driver. Campbell, he said, could be his crew chief.

"Just because you drop out doesn't mean you don't have plans," Smith said. "It doesn't mean you don't have a future."

Lately, Campbell said, he has cut back on his television time to study for the GED. Once enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, he is worried about the math portion of the exam.

"I'm hoping I will do well because this will open up another door if I do," he said. "I'll be one step closer to the way I want to be -- working, living comfortably."

Campbell had planned to take the exam this week but hit a snag: He failed to send in the $32 application fee.

"I'm very upset because I wanted to get it done," he said. "I wanted to start having those doors opened. I still plan to do it."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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