Searching for Zero
By Lawrence Hardy
Fargo is hip. Fargo is trendy. At least, that’s what the national media says -- much to the amusement of long-time residents like Deb Dillon of the Fargo Public Schools.
Once known for its bitter cold winters and an unflattering portrait in the Coen brothers’ movie of the same name, the largest city in North Dakota is now heralded in the Los Angeles Times and on National Public Radio for its livability, as seen in its restored downtown, new art museum, and many new coffee shops, cafes, and condos.
“Hipness” is nice, but even more important to educators like Dillon is the booming economy of this city of 90,000 (metro area, 160,000) on the Minnesota border. There are three universities in the region, and college graduates can find good jobs in the education, medical, and high-tech sectors.
“We’ve focused our energy so many years on the kids going to college,” not on those who only finish high school or on the 15 percent who don’t complete high school at all, says Dillon, the district’s director of alternative programs.
That changed three years ago, when Fargo schools asked the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) at Clemson University to study the 10,500-student school system’s dropout problem. Just the fact that is was a “problem” was hard to accept for many district employees. While the 15 percent dropout rate is higher than the state’s average, it’s not bad for an urban area with a growing minority population and free and reduced lunch eligibility of 25 percent. But Dillon and former superintendent David Flowers (now heading a district in Kansas) wanted more.
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