10/15/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2013

We Must Step Up to Keep Our Kids From Dropping Out

This post originally appeared on October 12 in the Detroit Free Press.

High school is now officially in Kymoni Baker's rearview mirror. The graduate from Detroit's Cody High School is filled with optimism for his future, with plans to attend culinary school and become a chef.

Just a few years ago, this would have been hard to imagine. Kymoni missed too many days of school and his grades tanked. His future looked bleak.

At the time, only around 50 percent of the students in his predominately low-wage, minority community in Detroit graduated from high school.

The story of Kymoni's chronic absenteeism is the story of too many children all across the nation.

At least five million students miss more than 10 percent of school every year. When attendance drops, there is a ripple effect that sweeps all the way through a child's academic career, until the day the child drops out of high school.

If they're not at their desks, they're not preparing for their futures. It's that simple.

For anyone who doubts the connection between chronic absenteeism and America's high school dropout rate -- an astonishing 1.2 million kids a year -- consider this: Research shows that a child's attendance rate in ninth grade is a better indicator of dropping out than eighth-grade test scores.

There's no question that test scores are important, but we cannot ignore the impact that chronic absenteeism has, not only on a young person's academic career, but quite possibly on the rest of his or her life. Dropouts earn $1 million less in income over a lifetime than college graduates, and they are more likely to be unemployed, live in poverty, end up in jail and have children who follow the same path.

The chain of events that leads to dropping out can be traced much further back than high school to the one in 10 kindergartners and first-graders who are chronically absent from school.

Only 17 percent of these children will manage to achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade. Third grade reading proficiency is a significant milestone in a young person's academic development. Children who fall behind so soon are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time.

Cutting the dropout rate in half would yield the government $45 billion in extra revenue and reduced costs every year. High school graduates are more likely to secure well-paying jobs and pay taxes, and they are less likely to depend on interventions such as remedial education or public assistance.

We need to get students back into the classrooms, and that is going to require renewed focus and collective action within each community.

In Kymoni's case, the combined efforts of teachers, school administrators, parents, nonprofit groups, corporate donors and community organizations, including the United Way, the Skillman Foundation and the General Motors Foundation, led to sweeping changes.

Struggling schools like Cody High were broken into smaller academies, and students were placed into groups that stayed together, with the same teachers, for all four years of high school. Principals were empowered to make decisions about the people, programs and budgets in their own buildings. Experienced teachers helped instill a mind-set focused on success. And a reliance on data flagged problems with grades and attendance, enabling intervention before the problems became severe.

These changes have produced outstanding results, and have dramatically improved graduation rates in Kymoni's high school.

Schools across the country need to partner with organizations in their communities to increase awareness about the long-term impact of poor attendance, and they need to engage with parents to address health and financial issues that contribute to absenteeism. Schools also need to develop comprehensive tracking systems that will tell them not only who is missing from schools, but also why those students are missing.

If the United States seeks to remain competitive in today's global marketplace, we must make a commitment to our education system today. We all own this problem, and we all must be a part of the solution.