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Four Years Buy You Seven

New studies show that today’s dropouts are more likely to have health problems than high school graduates

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Like a paint-by-numbers picture, the Community Indicators Initiative of Spokane is an Eastern Washington University project to compile numbers about all sorts of things — from how often people around here use sports facilities to per-capita personal income — and assemble them to form a snapshot of the city. Sounds kind of boring, but the numbers actually paint a compelling picture.So how are kids here doing? Could be better, it turns out. Fewer than half are considered healthy eaters or exercise as much as they should.

But one of the most glaring statistics is that about one-third of the kids who should be graduating from high school this spring won’t be getting their diplomas. The numbers have been climbing since 2004. Kids drop out for a variety of reasons — psychological or physical illness, money problems at home, apathy about schoolwork — and only about 3 percent of them will go on to graduate later. About half of the dropouts seem to vanish — they don’t tell their schools they’re leaving or give a reason, and no one can find them to ask about it after the fact. So 31 percent of the students enrolled in their freshman year are not graduating. For that 31 percent, life without a high school diploma is a whole lot harder.

And probably shorter. A Harvard Medical School study found that, as of 2000, people with 12 years or less of education had a life expectancy of 75 years, while those with more than 12 could expect to live seven more years. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute last summer showed the death rate from lung, colorectal, prostate and breast cancers had dropped substantially in working-age people. Great news. Except when researchers dug deeper into the data and found that, in fact, deaths from lung cancer in less-educated white women had actually increased, as did deaths from colon cancer in less-educated black men.

In an article titled, “Reframing School Dropout as a Public Health Issue,” published in Preventing Chronic Disease, co-authors Nicholas Freudenberg and Jessica Ruglis wrote: “If medical researchers were to discover an elixir that could increase life expectancy, reduce the burden of illness, delay the consequences of aging, decrease risky health behavior and shrink disparities in health, we would celebrate such a remarkable discovery. …evidence suggests that education is such an elixir.”

Improvement on a multi-faceted problem like high school dropout rates is going to take time. Researchers suggest efforts need to start as early as preschool and kindergarten with renewed and invigorated efforts at ensuring children are not just 6 years old, but also emotionally and physically ready to learn by the time they reach first grade. Studies show that kids who are engaged with their studies and develop an attachment to even one adult at their school are more likely to graduate. “Health interventions, including those targeted at sexual and reproductive health, healthy relationships, family health, violence prevention, substance use and mental health, have the potential to engage young people in schooling and connect them to caring adults,” write Freudenberg and Ruglis.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Stowell points to the district’s Havermale High School as one way of keeping students engaged. With just 450 students, the school is geared toward providing that important individual attention. “The staff listens to the students, develops relationships and designs programs to meet their individual needs.” That can include designing independent study programs, coaching and support for students who may already be parents themselves. The district also offers a skills center to help high school juniors and seniors get training to prepare for a career in diverse fields, including cosmetology, medical labs, television production and criminal justice. “We know that we need to make learning more relevant,” says Stowell. “Still, we need more options in Spokane for students who, for whatever reasons, start to get behind.”

Developing those options may not only lead students to better jobs, it may just help them live longer, healthier lives.