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San Antonio's high dropout rates at the root of city's 'brain drain'

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Recent weeks have seen increasing talk from local leaders about education and San Antonio's economic future. UTSA president Ricardo Romo, joined by Mayor Castro, County Judge Wolff, and Sam Dawson of Pape-Dawson Engineers, pitched for better state funding for UTSA. Their argument was that making UTSA a "Tier 1" institution was vital to "keep the best and brightest students (from) San Antonio in San Antonio." And Judge Wolff told the North San Antonio Chamber that "We're going to have a brain drain" if we don't deliver on a number of needed public efforts.

But Judge Wolff had his list of projects wrong. He said what we needed to address our "brain drain" was a new children's hospital, new streetcar lines, and "vibrant urban living in the central city." Streetcars and vibrant living might be lovely local additions, but they won't fix our real "brain" problem. And that problem goes well beyond what making a "Tier 1" university might address.

Let's start with what our real education problem is. Today, the competitiveness of a local economy is defined by the education and skills of the local populace, not by its buildings or physical development. There, San Antonio is woefully behind. The 2010 Census numbers on the proportion of adults with a college degree or more education, for metro areas of over one million, show where our community stands.

San Antonio ranks 48th out of 50 metros, at 25.1 percent. Our neighbor to the north, Austin, comes in at number three with 46.6 percent, just behind Denver and Washington, D.C. And San Jose — Silicon Valley — is right behind Austin, at 46.1 percent. We, on the other hand, are right at the bottom with Birmingham and Las Vegas.

Our standing as an "educated" metropolitan area isn't a function of our local universities, or the absence of a streetcar. It's a product of the local educational system. There too, the comparative numbers tell a striking story. The Texas Education Agency's annual "snapshot" data show how the state's major school districts are performing, particularly in terms of keeping kids in school and graduating them from high school.
For the 50 largest districts in the state in 2011, San Antonio is once again distinguished. The San Antonio Independent School District comes in at number two, with the second highest "longitudinal dropout rate" over grades 9 through 12, at 14.6 percent. And while that figure understates the real dropout rate (it misses those who leave before grade 9, for example), it puts SAISD well above other big city districts, including Dallas, Houston, Laredo, El Paso, and Austin.

Sobering as the overall SAISD number is, the figures for some individual high schools are shocking. Lanier and Edison high schools saw a 17.5 percent dropout rate for the class of 2009. That number reached 19.4 percent at Jefferson. And for Sam Houston High School, the 2009 class dropout rate came to a shocking 35.4 percent.

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