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Patchwork Nation: Mapping High School Dropout Rates

Of all the factors that go into making a community the local school system may be the most critical. Better schools not only equal better-educated kids, but often better property values and a better quality of life.

On Tuesday, a new report from the America’s Promise Alliance studying the graduation rates of high schools around the country showed good news: The number of “dropout factories” in the United States was declining. But the Building a Grad Nation report also found there are still some major challenges – some 40 percent of minority students fail to graduate.


Viewed through the prism of Patchwork Nation’s 12 county types, the message in the Building a Grad Nation report becomes even clearer. It’s not just poor minority students that are suffering disproportionately – it is poor, minority communities.

The Struggles in “Minority Central”

One county type stands out in sharpest relief in Patchwork Nation – the counties with large African American populations called Minority Central, set heavily in the nation’s southeast. Those counties hold only about 4.5 percent of the U.S. population, but they hold more than 15 percent of the high schools with the highest dropout rates.

Look at the map on the Patchwork Nation homepage and you will see a broad swath of “lowest performing” schools in the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.

The Minority Central county type also includes those counties in the southwest with large Native American populations. And, again if you look at that “lowest performing” map you will see it also includes those locales in Arizona and New Mexico.

Next on the list of over performing in terms of the number of dropout factories are the nation’s most populous places – the Industrial Metropolis counties. Those counties hold 18 percent of the country’s population, but more than 25 percent of the lowest performing high schools in terms of graduation rates.

The Industrial Metropolis counties also have large African American populations – about 23 percent of their total – but they stand out for their diversity. There are wide disparities between rich and poor, many young professional enclaves as well as struggling urban neighborhoods. And the difference in those counties is they also hold some of the best performing schools – as you can see on this map.

So Cook County, Illinois – the Industrial Metropolis that holds Chicago – has 39 of the lowest performing high schools, but also 19 of the best.

Latino-heavy Immigration Nation counties also have more “drop out factories” than their population suggests they should – about 7.7 percent of the worst schools and only 6.9 percent of U.S. population. Something to keep in mind about those counties is they tend to be quite divided. It may be that schools struggling in these places are the ones with the highest Latino populations, we don’t have enough data here to determine that.

Where People Finish School

Toggle between those two education maps on the homepage and you will notice the colors jump – blue around the upper-Midwest and Northeast, red in the southeast. But there are some differences to note.

The wealthy Monied Burb counties, which hold the largest percentage of U.S. population – 23 percent – do well in the report in that that do not hold a lot of the nation’s “dropout factories” – only about 10 percent of them. But they hold a good amount of the highest performers – about 24 percent, roughly their percentage of the population.

Some kinds of county, however, truly seem to over-perform when it comes to having the “best” schools in the study.

Counties with large college populations – Campus and Careers – do better. They only have 4.5 percent of the population but more than 6 percent of the highest performing schools. And the small town counties – the Service Worker Centers and Tractor Country counties – both have a much higher proportion the highest performing schools than their population suggests they should.

Those are the kinds of numbers that may make you question a lot of your own preconceptions about what it takes to get ahead in America.

And judging from our travels and reporting for Patchwork Nation, those numbers are not surprising by those numbers. The schools in Ann Arbor, our Campus and Careers locale, and Sioux Center, Iowa, Tractor Country, follow those points pretty closely. They are both places with strong school systems.

There are, of course, some large provisos in the data. The Building a Grad Nation report only measures one aspect of educational success – graduation rates. It does not consider what is being taught in the high schools in question or where the graduates go afterward. It doesn’t look at things like grade point average or test scores. It doesn’t take into account the size of the districts – beyond removing the smallest high schools with 100 students or less.

But the larger message from the numbers is complicated. Small more rural locales like those in Tractor Country and the Service Worker Centers are not wealthy. And even Campus Careers counties are, on the whole, less well-off than the Monied Burbs.

When you add it all up, one of the biggest takeaways from the Building a Grad Nation report may be that money matters, but other factors like home environment and community cohesiveness (the desire to not be a dropout in a tight-knit community) play large roles as well.

Dante Chinni is the director of the Patchwork Nation project.

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