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Why do Southerners drop out of school?

Jordan Weissman at the Atlantic uses a new Census Bureau tool to create a heat map showing who finishes high school.

Darker is better on Weissman's map.

The South is very light.

"The darker the shade of orange," Weissman writes, "the higher the graduation rate. Notice the giant pale underbelly stretching below the Mason Dixon line from the Southeast through Texas. That's our Southern dropout belt, where completion rates are largely below 85 percent. The national average, for reference, is about 87 percent."

But while Weissman is right about the national distribution of dropouts, it is also true that over the past 20 years, dropout rates nationwide have declined, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The "status dropout rate," which includes all people between 16 and 24 who have not earned a high school diploma or GED, dropped from 12 percent in 1990 to 7 percent in 2011, the NCES reports.

Rates for whites fell from 9 to 5 percent, Blacks from 13 to 7 percent, and Hispanics from 32 to 14 percent. Over this period, the status dropout rate was lowest for whites, followed by blacks and Hispanics. The sharp fall in Hispanic dropout rates of this period is striking.

This past year, high school graduation rates reached a 40-year high. "Over the past decade there have been numerous initiatives at the local, state and national level to improve the nation's graduation rate, particularly among historically underserved student populations," The Atlantic reported last summer. "It appear that groundswell is building into momentum on several fronts, and the next step — for educators, policymakers, community groups, families, and the students themselves — will be to sustain it."

Despite the good news nationally, many administrators are concerned that current zero tolerance policies could be leading to forced removal of students from the school system, creating more problems down the road.

“A knee-jerk reaction for minor offenses, suspending and expelling students, this is not the business we should be in," Robert W. Runcie, a school superintendent in Broward County, Fla., told the New York Times earlier this month. “We are not accepting that we need to have hundreds of students getting arrested and getting records that impact their lifelong chances to get a job, go into the military, get financial aid.”

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com