This month thousands of Black students will walk across the stage and receive their high school diplomas in communities across our nation. The receipt of a high school diploma is an achievement that we should elevate and celebrate in our community. Given the high rate of dropouts in our community, we must make every effort to communicate the importance of a high school diploma to our young people. Success is not guaranteed with a high school diploma, but failure is more likely an outcome without it.
There are myriad of reasons why students drop out of high school. Some make simply make a rational choice, opting to leave a school that they know is failing to provide them a good education. There are others who have been the victims of bad public school systems their entire lives and have such a tremendous learning deficit that they are unable to achieve in the classroom. Then there are students whose personal circumstances, driven by poverty, are so overwhelming that they are distracted to the point that even if they can compete academically, life gets in the way. Yes, there are some, but clearly not the majority, who exhibit no interest in learning and are a disruptive force in classrooms and schools. Still, even among some of the latter, their behavior is attributable to other factors.
Despite the many reasons for student failure, we do know the lack of a high school diploma is essential if one is to have a chance of success in today’s economy. While a diploma is no longer the guaranteed ticket to a job it once was it is the passport to opportunities to advanced learning and experiences that will significantly improve the likelihood of higher earnings over a lifetime. Even as we experience a dramatic realignment of the global economy, the base level skills in math and language that are obtained at the high school level provides a strong foundation upon which to build a career path. Without a diploma, students have little chance of advancing, to a job, community college or four-year college.
There is evidence that in some states efforts are underway to improve public education, the source of learning for most of our children. Today’s edition of The Washington Post offers an article that details what the state of Virginia is doing to improve the quality of public education and offer its students multiple options for a diploma. While an advanced diploma that serves as the passport to a college education is a popular option for students in Virginia, the state is also reforming career and technical education so students who desire an alternative career pathway will have that option. What is all the more significant about Virginia’s leadership in school reform is that this is the very state that was the face of defiance in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school Supreme Court school desegregation ruling. Unlike that dark period, states need to follow Virginia’s example and improve high school education.
We must make every effort to engage the current debate over education reform. Whether you are a parent of a high school age child or not, we should all play an active role in making certain that Black children receive a sound education and graduate from high school. The very survival of Black Americans is dependent upon education. It always has been. That is why slaves risked their lives to learn to read and Black children withstood the catcalls of racists to walk into segregated schools during Jim Crow. We need to return to an era when we celebrated education and encouraged our children to excel. Too often, we casually acknowledge high school graduation when we need to elevate it as a momentous occasion while at the same time reminding our children that it is the beginning and not the end. The Class of 2009 faces many challenges in their journey that awaits them but they have already passed a major test. They are high school graduates.