Every year Maine loses about 3,000 students who drop out before graduation. Many of them end up on the streets of Portland, where about a quarter of all high school students give up without a diploma.

When a student drops out of school he or she buys a ticket for a life of poverty. While there are always exceptions, a young person without a diploma can expect to earn $8,000 per year less year than a classmate who stuck it out and earned a diploma. And the divide gets wider the higher the level of education a student attains.

A college graduate earns about $30,000 per year more than a high school dropout. Someone with a post-graduate degree can be expected to earn $46,000 more per year.

This is not only a problem for dropouts. The whole community bears the burden that comes with this loss of potential. The Portland School Department deserves credit for looking for creative way to do something about it.

Portland is planning a one-day “amnesty” for students who dropped out of one of its three high schools this spring, arranging one-on-one interviews with staff aimed at getting these students back in school next fall.

The approach makes sense, because it is often an individual’s family circumstances and financial needs that are the last factor that leads a student to quit school. A few minor adjustments on the school side might be enough to get a student back long enough to graduate.

This is an approach that makes sense, but school officials will admit that waiting until after students have already dropped out will be too late for most of them.

The time to intervene and make a real difference in the high school dropout rate is before the students get to high school. It may even be before they get to kindergarten.

Early childhood education and support for families that help young parents get their kids to school ready to learn will result in early success that is a foundation for the many stresses that affect children later, when they get to high school.

Aggressive outreach to students who have stopped going to school is important and worthwhile. But it will never have as much impact on this problem as early and sustained intervention designed to stop the dropouts from occurring in the first place.