03/05/2009 06:26 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

President Obama and "The Silent Epidemic"

"We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and half of the students who begin college never finish." --President Barack Obama, February 24, 2009

Ask Bill Milliken about high school dropouts and he is quick to rattle off a flurry of depressing statistics:

- Nearly one-third of public high school students fail to graduate with their class
- Nearly 50 percent of minority students never finish high school
- Students generally drop out of school between the ages of 16 to 18

It is being called our nation's "silent epidemic."

"Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, suffer poor health, enter the welfare system, and spend time in prison," says Mr. Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.

Dropping out of school may seem like a defiant act of rebellion to a disenfranchised student. But recent studies show that the cost to the national economy is $192-billion per year, or 1.6 percent of our gross national product. These figures represent a loss of combined income and taxes from the dropout population. In speaking to this issue, the President said, "This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

For the past 30 years, Bill has made it his life's work to build supportive relationships with teenagers who are in danger of quitting high school. "Although they tend to drop out anywhere between the ages of 16 and 18, they are dropping out mentally way before then. In kindergarten and grade school, you can begin to see the children who are falling behind," he said. "In middle school, when a student stops showing up, you know that she is on the road to becoming a dropout."

In his book The Last Dropout: Stop the Epidemic (Hay House, 2007), Mr. Milliken describes how Communities in Schools helps more than 1.2-million at-risk students every year. C.I.S. sends 54,000 volunteer coordinators onsite to 3,400 schools in 27 states. They speak frankly with teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators to identify students who are in danger of becoming dropouts. "Teachers are being asked to be mother, father, sibling...everything but teachers. We send someone in to do an assessment and hook students up with resources," he said. "This frees teachers up to teach." Having identified students at risk, C.I.S. provides mentors who motivate and encourage them to stay the course. Mr. Milliken's organization also partners with organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

Ultimately, it is up to parents and teachers to make sure that students take advantage of the Obama administration's education initiatives. The President said, "In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a parent, for a mother or father who will attend those parent-teacher conferences, or help with homework, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, read to their child."

I couldn't agree more. But recession anxiety can impair a committed parent's ability to follow through consistently. Parents who are struggling to pay the bills may be working extra jobs or worrying about losing their ability to provide for their families. While statistics indicate that teenagers in lower income families are at higher risk of dropping out of school than are students from middle class families, our recession is a great equalizer. Middle class students and even those from affluent families are probably noticing that their parents are not as available to help them with science projects or study for mid-terms.

As a single mother, I have been there. The cost of helping your child improve her S.A.T. scores and write the perfect college essay can cost thousands of dollars out of pocket. When you have to choose whether to pay for your phone OR your electricity in a given month, paying for tutors and S.A.T. prep courses can become impossible dreams. If you are a parent who believes that the most important gift you can give your child is education, your inability to pay for your child's success in school can make you feel like a failure.

No matter how tough adolescents act--and I know firsthand how that goes--teenagers are vulnerable and afraid to fail. As family systems begin to crumble under financial pressure, the kids who need us most are at risk of giving up on higher education. It has nothing to do with how smart or talented they are. Mr. Milliken said, "A gifted or talented student can get bored or frustrated and stop showing up for classes and eventually drop out." Another risk factor for an AP-level high school student can be disappointment at not being able to apply for the college of his choice because his family cannot afford to send him there. Even our best and brightest students can fall victim to what has been called this country's "silent epidemic."

Now the stakes are higher. Not only do we need to prepare our children to survive in a tough economy, we need to impress upon them that no one can survive without decent computer skills. Even manual work demands computer literacy these days as manufacturing, transportation goods, and heavy equipment assembly lines rely on computers. President Obama drove this point home when he said, "It's not just quitting on yourself; it's quitting on your country. And this country needs and values the talents of every American."

Need help? Communities in Schools finds mentors in different sectors of the community who are willing to volunteer to help students who are getting ready to drop out. Mentors advocate to ensure that each student's abilities and interests are addressed through the curriculum. Some students go to college and are helped to find scholarships. Others go for vocational and educational training. Mr. Milliken said, "In the world economy, kids need at least 16 years of education. We help them get the skills they need to earn a living."

If you notice signs that a teenager is "mentally dropping out," help is available: