By Jerry T. Jordan

In the same week this month, a study by a Washington criminal-justice think tank revealed that Philadelphia has the highest rate of incarceration in the country, while another study, by a Maryland-based nonprofit, reported that only half of Philadelphia's students graduate from high school.

At a cost of about $24,000 per inmate per year, Philadelphia's prison budget is the fastest-growing city expense, and it dwarfs the $9,951 a year Philadelphia spends to educate each of its 207,000 public and charter school students.

The link between Philadelphia's shamefully low graduation rate and its incarceration rate is obvious. Around the country, states that fall below the national average in education spending have the highest prison populations, according to an Education Week article last month. It seems equally obvious that by investing in programs that we know will help students succeed academically, we could reduce our spending significantly on inmates and prisons in the future.

Educators know that children who attend high-quality preschool education programs are more likely to graduate from high school. We also know that children educated in small classes are more likely to master reading and math skills on schedule and graduate from high school on time.

Educators can pinpoint with surprising accuracy by the fifth and sixth grades which 10- and 11-year-olds are at the greatest risk of dropping out of high school. The warning signs - low attendance, poor academic performance, and behavioral problems - are apparent by middle school.

Instead of wringing our hands about the alarming dropout rate, we need to roll up our sleeves and put resources into reforms that we know help students succeed.

First, we have to make sure at-risk children are enrolled by age 3 or 4 in educationally focused preschool programs.

Then we have to invest in reducing class sizes, particularly in schools with persistently low reading and math scores. Students in classes with 20 or fewer children master reading and math skills faster, perform above grade level in middle school, and are more likely to take Advanced Placement courses and college entrance exams in high school.

In grades five to eight, when the script for high school dropouts is largely written, we need systems that identify and track vulnerable children and provide school and community resources to support these youngsters and their families. Schools must have a variety of academic, health and social-service resources to improve achievement, attendance and behavior.

Finally, in high school, we must offer students a rigorous and relevant curriculum that provides them with the skills they need for college, job training or the workforce. Schools must offer a variety of opportunities, including internships, mentoring, and programs through which graduates earn recognized professional certifications and licenses that qualify them for jobs after high school.

Every high school needs art, music, libraries, clubs and sports. These aren't frills. They are activities that keep kids involved in school and motivated to succeed.

Philadelphia is fortunate to have a mayor who is deeply concerned about raising graduation rates, a governor who has proposed a significant ramping up of state education funding, and dedicated parents and advocates working to end a dropout crisis that condemns too many of our youngsters to unproductive lives and incarceration.

As a community, we cannot rest until we have the highest graduation rates and the lowest incarceration rates. That won't happen until the city and state invest as readily in education as they do incarceration.

The Pennsylvania Costing-Out Study determined that Philadelphia would have to spend $14,925 a year on each student. That might sound expensive, but it's a lot cheaper than spending $24,000 a year per inmate.

We know which education programs will raise graduation rates and keep our young men and women from languishing in jails. We must create a first-rate education system that nurtures children from their earliest years and find the political will to make high school graduation and workforce readiness our highest priority.