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Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
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ACLU Seeks Help With Minority Dropouts

WEST PALM BEACH (CN) - Soaring numbers of minority dropouts in Palm Beach County schools warrant a court order to improve the graduation rate, parents say in a class action. The county's high school graduation rate for black students was 29 percent lower than that of white students in 2007, according to Florida's self-reported numbers.

Parents say something must be done to curb the compounding effects of poverty and poor education in West Palm Beach.

In the complaint in Palm Beach County Court, ACLU attorneys say the county has failed to provide "uniform" and "high-quality" education. In 2004, only 56 percent of local teen-agers earned a standard high school diploma within four years. That's 14 percent below the national average, according to ACLU statistics.

While the lawsuit outlines the problem, it makes few if any suggestions about what should be done to improve the graduation rate.

This was a conscious choice, said ACLU attorney Muslima Lewis.

"What's unique about this lawsuit is that it doesn't specify how the problem should be addressed," Lewis said in an interview. "We want the court to set the standards, and once those standards are set up, we'll leave it to the educators."

Lewis acknowledges that forcing schools to take action may not be enough. In communities with exceptionally high dropout rates, social immobility becomes entrenched and systemic poverty takes hold. The cycle is not easily broken, she said.

"We have to make the state realize the fundamental problem and take on the challenge," Lewis said.

The complaint cites Suncoast Community High School to illustrate how de facto segregation makes it hard for the school district to reach students in the county's worst neighborhoods.

In the past 10 years, Suncoast has consistently been recognized as one of the best high schools in the country. Last year, Newsweek ranked the school No. 7 in the nation and the best in Florida.

During Suncoast's ascent of the academic rankings, however, the accelerated courses were mostly occupied by out-of-area white students who had come from around the county to participate in its magnet programs. The school struggled to integrate students from the local community of Riviera Beach, many of whom are minorities.

The graduation rate among local residents was markedly lower than the rest of the student body, and though these residents made up more than half of the school's students, only a handful earned advanced degrees each year.

Riviera Beach is plagued by one of the highest crime rates in the country. Riviera Beach and neighboring West Palm Beach are two of the most dangerous cities in the country, according to FBI violent crime statistics.

The ACLU sees this de facto segregation as the result of a self-perpetuating socioeconomic feedback loop. In communities like Riviera Beach, the school district is battling a culture that lacks emphasis on education.

"Children of high school dropouts are far more likely to attend weak or low-performing schools, perform badly in school, and drop out of school themselves, thereby creating powerful intergenerational social and economic problems," the complaint states.

More than half of African-American male dropouts in their early thirties have criminal records, the ACLU says, citing Department of Corrections 2003 data.

"There's no magic bullet. There's only so much we can do through this lawsuit," Lewis said.

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