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Cities use scholarship money - plus mentors - to cut dropout rate

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 1988


MONEY talks. But not loudly enough to stop the dropout problem by itself. This is the lesson educators are learning as they dangle the promise of funds for post-secondary education before potential high school dropouts. Much support and individual encouragement are still needed to keep students in school.

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From Hartford to Los Angeles, Cleveland to Atlanta, inner-city students are being told that money is available to help pay college expenses if they graduate. Equally important, people are donating their time to help students who accept the challenge.

A civic group in Cleveland, for example, recently began a ``scholarship in escrow'' program, in which students in Grades 7 to 12 earn scholarship money based on grades. Each A earns $40, a B $20, and a C $10. This could amount to $4,800, if a student graduates with all A's - big money in a district where 62 percent of the households receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

The program, which began Feb. 1, was organized by the Greater Cleveland Roundtable in response to the nearly 50 percent dropout rate in Cleveland's high schools.

``The kids who were graduating were ill-equipped either for jobs or post-secondary education,'' says Cherie Olland, interim director of the program. To encourage better performance across the board, superintendent Alfred Tutela asked that the scholarships be available to all students.

Mr. Tutela pins his hopes on the ``sense of ownership'' local businesses and foundations feel toward the local school system. Funding is expected to total $3 million per year. Already $8 million has been committed by local corporations and foundations for the program's five-year trial run.

Citizens in Hartford are also working to solve their city's dropout problem. Hartford's largest law firm, Day, Berry & Howard, has ``adopted'' a class of 15 students as possible recipients of some of the $160,000 the firm has promised to provide over the next eight years. These 10th-graders are the first group to be included in a dropout prevention program know as project Bridge. The program - for students who are at least a year below grade level as they enter the 7th grade - is designed to help bridge the transition to high school.

``Now there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for these kids,'' says David Lawrence, their former principal. ``But they need attention in the interim.'' This support comes not only from their teachers, but also from members of the law firm.

Each youngster has a ``mentor'' - a lawyer or legal assistant who acts as a special friend downtown. The next Bridge classes moving up the line have more students in them, and the Hartford Chamber of Commerce is seeking businesses to adopt them as well. A sponsor for next year's 10th graders will be announced at the end of the month.

The success of the program, according to Mr. Lawrence, depends on ``the degree to which the lawyers can hook up with the kids. Somebody has to come into their lives, believe in them, and offer direction or advice. You can hang $20,000 in front of them, but if it's four years down the road, that's a long time away.''

These examples from Hartford and Cleveland are just two of many such initiatives across the United States inspired by Eugene Lang, the millionaire executive who adopted a class of sixth graders from his Harlem alma mater in 1981. His promise to foot their college bills was an impromptu gesture he made while speaking at their graduation from elementary school. Today, half of the 51 students are in college. Others will graduate from high school this year. Three students did not finish and are not in school.