AT&T unveiled a $100 million initiative April 17 designed to curb the country’s high school dropout rate, which has reached critical levels in recent years, according to education experts.

The AT&T Aspire program will distribute the $100 million over four years through a competitive grant process, said Eric Hausken, a spokesman for AT&T. The grant money will be distributed by the start of the 2008-09 school year–which begins in August in most U.S. school districts–and will be doled out to school systems and local education organizations in $50,000 to $100,000 increments.

A staple of the initiative will be a job shadowing program that will allow 100,000 students to follow AT&T employees around the workplace, letting teenagers see the benefits of a high school and college education. The company has committed 400,000 employee volunteer hours for the shadowing program–costs that will not count toward the $100 million.

"AT&T Aspire is about supporting the great work already underway to help our kids succeed in school, and helping students see the connection between education and their best future," AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson said in a statement.

Nearly 80 percent of students who participate in job shadowing programs say it has bolstered their desire to stay in school, according to Junior Achievement, an international organization that teaches workforce readiness, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship through hands-on learning.

The two labor unions that represent AT&T workers both agreed to support the job shadowing program.

Hausken said priority would be given to grant proposals that served ninth graders or students making the jump from eighth to ninth grade. Motivating the youngest high school students to stay in school, Hausken said, would eventually rein in escalating dropout rates.

"The end result is graduation, but we want to start early in the process and target [high school freshmen]," he said. "To make the biggest impact, we selected that age range."

Stephenson discussed the country’s dropout rate at the Economic Club of Chicago April 17, saying the dropout problem threatened "our nation’s global economic leadership."

AT&T’s announcement comes a month after America’s Promise Alliance–a national youth advocacy organization–released a report that showed one-third of U.S. high school students drop out of school before graduation. More than 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year, according to the report, and the results could be devastating: The U.S. economy loses $3.7 billion annually because students are unprepared to enter college or require remedial courses.

Among the lowest graduation rates were the Detroit school system–with a graduation rate of 24.9 percent–and Indianapolis Public Schools, which saw 34.1 percent of its high school students graduate. About 70 percent of U.S. high school students graduate with a diploma.

Statistics released by the U.S. Labor Department last month showed an 8.2 percent jobless rate for Americans without a high school diploma, compared with an overall jobless rate of 5.1 percent.

On the same day America’s Promise Alliance released its dropout report, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said her department soon would require that states track dropout rates in a uniform way. School systems across the country currently track dropout rates in a variety of ways, making the statistics unreliable, Spellings said.

In some school districts, students count toward the dropout rate only if they register as a dropout when they leave school before graduation. In many school systems, students who leave school are not considered dropouts if they promise to obtain a general education diploma sometime in the future.

Links:

AT&T Philanthropic Education Program

Junior Achievement

America’s Promise Alliance

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