LANSING - Michigan's beleaguered educational system finally got some good news: Michigan's dropout rate has decreased 40 percent since 2000.
With fewer jobs available, employers are putting more emphasis on education, said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, senior research associate at Michigan League for Human Service. Some minimum wage jobs are requiring a diploma.
"The 'Stay in School' message is powerful," Zehnder-Merrell said.
In 2000, the number of Michigan teens ages 16 to 19 that were not in school or didn't finish school was 51,195, according to Michigan League for Human Services. Nine years later, only 34,067 teens are dropouts. Nationally, Michigan falls around the middle of the pack with an 11.3 percent high school dropout rate.
Huron County has Michigan's lowest dropout rate with only 3.4 percent of all students, according to the league. Alcona and Lake Counties are highest with rates around 23 percent.
Alcona High School often accepts students from other districts, said Tony Suszek, assistant superintendent of non-instructional service at Alpena-Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District.
"We don't get these kids for a full 13 years," Suszek said. " Are we really making an impact on these kids?"
"When you have a number of students who are jumping around like that, their success rates aren't very good," he said. Alcona is trying to concentrate on students from their district of residence.
A range of things has been done to improve Michigan's dropout rate, said Robert Floden, the interim dean in the College of Education at Michigan State University.
"Schools are paying more attention to the dropout rates and then working hard to keep kids in school," he said.
Credit recovery programs, where students can make up credits previously lost, and summer school programs to make up failed courses are available to students, Floden said.
Alternative Education routes are more readily available to students all over the state, said Jim Ballard, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.
Students can be labeled "at risk" and receive special attention while online options are also available, he said.
Does Michigan have an acceptable dropout rate?
"One dropout is too many," said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association. "Moving in the right direction is huge."
Teen dropouts were a problem long before 2000. The problem is rooted in Michigan's history, Pratt said. Students used to drop out of high school and get a good job at an auto plant making a decent living.
"Those days are gone," he said.
Floden said it's going to be hard to get graduation rates to 100 percent and Michigan's 89 percent rate may be as good as it gets.
"Up around 90 (percent) is probably as close to a high as we're going to be able to push it," he said.
To further reduce the rates, communities and parents need to emphasize the importance of education, Pratt said. Goals need to be created and parents need to enforce their expectations.
Dropout rates need to be tackled statewide, Zehnder-Merrell said. Opportunities for dropouts to return to school need to be more available.
"Increasing class size and cutting funding certainly isn't the answer," she said.
Schools need to plug students into career paths for after graduation, Zehnder-Merrell said.
We need to focus on the isolated, disconnected communities, she said. Communities with higher dropout rates need to be targeted.
Poverty, geographical location and family life all affect the student's chances, Zehnder-Merrell said.