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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Mr. Lang's success is due largely to support programs ``managed by seasoned professionals,'' such as the Harlem Youth Action Corps, according to Andrew Hahn, assistant dean at Brandeis University's Heller School for Advanced Studies. Hahn says the news media have showered too much attention on the drama of Lang's philanthropy, rather than on the hard work of caring adults that made the program effective.

Lang's idea, known as ``I Have A Dream,'' has spread in the last two years to include similar programs in 12 other US cities.

But for every class adopted by one of these programs, there are countless others that are not. Hence some individuals, including Lang, are pushing for broad-based scholarship incentives. Sam Husk of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington, D.C., says this is a ``national problem'' and should be addressed in part through enlarging federal Pell grants for college education.

For now, the activity is mostly on the state and local level. In his recent State of the State message, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo proposed a plan that would provide $50 to 60 million per year to students from families at or near poverty level. Students could receive a maximum of $2,005 per year for college expenses. This ``Liberty Scholarship'' would supplement state and federal assistance, so students would have a realistic level of financial support. Governor Cuomo says he expects such an incentive to reduce the state's dropout rate.

A $1 million allocation in Cuomo's proposal, submitted to the state Legislature on Feb. 10, would establish a statewide mentoring program.

But can the New York program, which would be the first of its kind, combine statewide coverage with the personal involvement that reaches potential dropouts?

While it may be difficult for a statewide program to match Lang's personal touch, its success could depend on such efforts.

Dropping out: `It's everybody's problem'

According to US Department of Education statistics, 682,000 teen-agers dropped out of school in the 1985-6 school year. One of every four 19-year-olds in the United States did not graduate from high school.

Some of the highest state dropout rates are in the South, where the figure is near 30 percent for public schools in Louisiana and Florida. Minnesota has the best record, with less than 10 percent of students failing to complete high school (see chart on Page 19).

Tom Steel, coordinator of dropout prevention programs in Detroit, where the dropout rate is close to 60 percent, cites two ways in which the dropout problem is becoming a national economic problem:

The nation is growing older. This puts an increasing burden on younger Americans to be productive.

There are fewer viable options for dropouts. ``A few years ago an auto worker without a high school diploma could support a family,'' says Mr. Steel. ``Now things are a lot tougher ... The choice now is between a fast-food job, welfare dependency, or crime.'' He says that 70 percent of those in prison were dropouts.

``It's everybody's problem,'' says Steel, adding that parents, employers, educators, and the kids themselves must all contribute to a solution.

In Detroit, students took the initiative to create peer group counseling and tutoring programs. In one school, seniors adopted 9th graders to help them make the transition into high school. Getting help from their peers gives students a positive feeling about school, where the message too often is, ``It's good to be bad and bad to be good,'' says Steel.

Meanwhile, ``Campus Compact,'' an association of 120 colleges and universities based at Brown University, is launching a mentoring program that will match college students with at-risk high school students across the nation.

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