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Fixing the Dropout Problem

Posted on October 25, 2022

By John Regan
President and CEO

I’ve been writing the last few weeks about the ever-shrinking number of qualified workers available to fill the positions we need in our Massachusetts businesses. The demographic changes underway in our state are only getting worse, and the problem of attracting and retaining high-quality workers is growing more acute.

But today I want to talk about the other side of the equation – the development of good quality, reliable workers – particularly the development of one of the most untapped resources we already have in plentiful supply: the young people in our urban centers. 

The problems in our cities are well documented, and probably well known by you personally. According to the US Department of Education, 1.2 million kids drop out of high school every year. In the commonwealth that number is about 10,000 – a staggering 27 students per day. And the cost to taxpayers for each one of them over a lifetime, as reported by the Graduation Alliance (2017), is $417,061 (adjusted for 2022 dollars). That’s a whopping $4.17 billion for just one year’s non-graduates in Massachusetts alone. 

This is a problem that must be solved. If we can fix the dropout problem, we will eliminate the crippling taxpayer burden and improve the overall life and economies of our cities. That’s not to mention giving each kid a chance at developing a long and fruitful career with a good paying job in one of our businesses.

We’ve traditionally looked to our public schools for these employees. But the public schools can’t do it alone, Dr. Aaron Jennings, the Diversity, Equity and Excellence Officer in the Chelsea Public Schools says.

“School districts are increasingly looking for the nonprofits, businesses and community organizations with whom we can collaborate to help our students succeed and be prepared at graduation to take high quality jobs where they can contribute and thrive,” Dr. Jennings says.

The good news is that help is on the way.

One great example is Elevate New England, which has been working for the last seven years in Lowell and Lawrence to help historically low-income, poorly performing students graduate from high school and become adults who “thrive and contribute to their communities” (quoting from their mission statement).

Working this year with 1500 kids, Elevate New England teaches accredited classes in public high schools and middle schools – classes that meet every day alongside history and math. But their curriculum contains subjects like positive work ethic, responsibility, integrity, respect, career mindedness, and seven more topics just like them. In other words, the kind of qualities we all look for in the people we want to hire.

Elevate New England has figured out not only how to teach these qualities – but also how to build “soft skills” into the young people through long-term mentoring commitments. The graduation rate is 98%. And while some of their kids head to college and others to the military, the lion’s share of them are ready, eager, and well prepared to jump into the workforce. These are the kind of workers we need.

Businesses in the commonwealth need to find innovative, nimble, results-oriented non-profits like Elevate New England and help them succeed. They are not only our pipeline for good employees but they are also our strategy to help our cities grow stronger.

Elevate’s Board Chairman, Jim Pocock, says the organization is looking for additional corporate partnerships to take on their graduates as employees and also to help them expand the program. We all need to find non-profits that are doing work like this and build such partnerships. As Elevate says in its tagline, “no one gets there alone.”