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High school diploma doesn't mean what it used to

This story is part of WSKG's 9 Seconds series about high school dropouts. It's part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's American Graduate Initiative. You can read the rest of the stories in this series at WSKGNews.org.

Tony DiLucci grew up in a working class family. When he was in high school, his counselors sized him and his family up, and guided him toward a life of factory jobs.

"I had a high school counselor who said to me, 'College, why do you want to go to college? Your dad works in a factory, your mom is a homemaker, graduate from high school and get a job at one of the local factories.' "

Why DiLucci wanted to go to college was because of his dad: his father had always urged him to do so.  So he did, and now he's the director of the technical education center at the BOCES near Ithaca.

But DiLucci says the pressures he faced as a young person are different than what today's students face.  Had he opted for a manufacturing job right out of school, it would have been an option for him.  

Increasingly though, that's not the case for today's kids - and never mind what happens if you don't graduate.

The new factory

DiLucci says there's nothing wrong with students dropping out of high school to go right into a job. But the problem is that that's unlikely to be a possibility for most dropouts.

"I would study the research," he cautions. "I'm sure you'd see that doesn't happen very often."

The research backs him up: A 2010 study by the National Center for Economic Statistics found that more high school dropouts were unemployed, versus adults with a high school education. Dropouts were also in worse health, and made up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population.

But try explaining that data to a teenager. DiLucci says schools have long grappled with how to retain kids who don't see the point of staying in school.

In the past they had the carrot of steady employment, if they could just get that diploma and find factory work. But now times are changing.

Kionix is an example of just how much. Based in Ithaca, the company makes "inertial motion sensors." Its factory floor sounds like a swarm of bees, with machines creating, programming and manipulating tiny sensors which are found in phones, cars and game controllers. 

Most of the 190 people that work at Kionix's factory operate machines. But the company's director of operations, Steve Morris, says when he hires, he's looking for what are known as "soft skills," like computer skills, the ability to follow written and verbal instructions, and multitasking.

"We're looking for strong work ethics," he says. "We look for team players."

And they're not necessarily looking for a diploma.

Morris says public schools have completely failed to prepare kids to work at a company like his, so when he finds the right work ethic, he does on-the-job training with the candidate. 

"I would think it would be great if somebody had a high school education," Morris says. "That doesn't mean in any way that they wouldn't possess the skills I need on the floor."

Extra burden

Christian Harris, the state Department of Labor's researcher in the Southern Tier, backs up Morris' hiring strategy.  He says the region doesn't hurt for engineers with stacks of diplomas. But:

"If you can't work well in the system, if you can't develop and problem-solve and kind of evolve within the current workforce dynamic, it doesn't really mean anything," he says.

Those demands present a challenge for educators.

Albert Penna is the principal at Binghamton High School and did his Ph.D. research on dropout prevention. He likes to remind kids how much they’re missing out on if they don’t get a diploma.

"Well, if they don't stay in school, where do they go," he asks. "Incarceration, unemployment, social services, welfare, all of that, they become wards of the state. That adds up."

In New York City, those costs add up to an extra $37,000 tax burden per dropout, over that individual's lifetime, compared to a high school graduate, according to a 2011 Columbia study.

Dropping out also limits a young person's options, according to DiLucci.

"The rule is that the high school diploma tends to open the door half-way," he explains. "The college diploma tends to open the door up a little bit more and then the student has to walk through the door."

DiLucci says his job is to help kids walk through that door, by offering relevant classes in green building, digital media, nursing and animal sciences, alongside more traditional vocational technology courses like auto tech and welding.

The point, DiLucci says, is to offer kids more options than to be - as he puts it - bakers, butchers and candlestick makers.

WSKG/Southern Tier reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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