Dropouts who drop back in

Brian McQueen is one of millions of high school dropouts in the United States , but he is one of the fortunate ones. Three years ago, at the age of 17, Brian dropped out of the Boston public schools - the casualty of his parents' opposition to busing, years of extended absences, and an educational system he considered impersonal and out to see him fail.

When a teacher one day asked him, ''Why don't you just quit?'' he did just that.

Today Brian is moving forward again. He attends a technical training program, works nights at a convenience store, and has his sights set on becoming a draftsman. The young man from South Boston credits his success largely to a federally funded alternative school program, City Roots, where small classes and teachers who cared provided the environment he needed to work for his GED (high school equivalency) and get back on track.

But education experts are increasingly wondering what will happen to the growing number of Brians in the educational system. Federal cutbacks mean that fewer adolescents will be able to find the special attention they need, some experts say. Others point out that because the number of dropouts is growing, financial support for alternative and dropout prevention programs will be spread still thinner.

According to the federal Department of Education, 27 percent of high school students drop out today before receiving their diplomas, up from 23 percent a decade ago. For black students the rate is 24 percent and for Hispanics, 39 percent. But perhaps the most appalling statistics are estimates that fully one-half of high school students in the major US cities end up dropping out.

For many educators, however, the greatest concern lies in the renewed call for excellence in education. They fear that the emphasis on tougher standards could drive away many ''high risk'' students who already have difficulty in the schools.

''Many of us are wondering if all the emphasis on excellence and rigor in the classroom won't drive more kids out,'' says Ruby Martin, whose consulting firm, Martin & Rosi Inc., in Richmond, Va., works with businesses and public agencies to set up work-school programs for disadvantaged youths. Says Jack Wuest, director of Alternative Schools Network in Chicago, ''Unless there is an equal effort to reach the kids who are falling behind, excellence means they'll be leaving the schools in larger numbers.''

Generally, however, those educators surveyed by the Monitor who work with high-risk youths say they welcome the calls for higher standards - as long as the special needs of students lower on the achievement ladder are not ignored.

''It's not so much that these kids can't make it,'' says Sidney Smith, director of alternative programs for the Boston schools. ''Most of them want to, and can. But if we have these expectations, then we are going to have to be a lot more flexible in terms of how we educate our kids.''

Experts say such longstanding reasons for dropping out as boredom, the impersonal nature of many high schools, and the desire to get a job have been compounded by a number of factors: the recent recession (more teen-agers leave school to help meet family expenses than is generally realized, educators say); violence or lack of discipline in some schools; a growing number of teen-age pregnancies; and the difficulty faced by students for whom English is a second language.

For Joseph Rosen, a former Chicago district superintendent now on the Chicago Urban League's education task force, there are signs around the country of ''a new attitude that the schools are for strengthening academics and discipline - and if you can't take it, beat it.

''We seem to forget,'' he adds, ''that many of those who don't make it today will become worse problems for society tomorrow.''

The Chicago Urban League is setting up a dropout prevention project in three heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, where the dropout rate runs as high as 70 percent. The goal is to reach 15,000 students by matching their particular needs with community and school services.

Mr. Rosen says he is not hopeful about the future. ''Unless there are some important moves in the states and local communities, I am not optimistic about trends in the number of dropouts.''

Yet others point to two major reasons for guarded optimism: the increased attention many states are paying to education and the growing tendency for the private sector to participate in programs to keep youths in school. Around the country, businesses are working with schools and community agencies to help train teen-agers in job skills and discourage dropping out.

One of the most highly touted programs is a performance agreement between schools and business known as the Boston Compact. In exchange for a pledge by Boston schools to take specific steps to improve student performance, almost 300 area businesses have agreed to place a specified number of graduates in full-time jobs and to offer summer jobs to students in the lower grades.

What particularly excites educators is that the Compact stipulates a 5 percent annual reduction in the city's dropout rate. ''Because of that requirement, the Alternative-Ed people are now empowered to go for the funding and take the risks needed for programs that have proved successful,'' says Compact staff director Al McMahill.

One project with a proven track record is the Academies Program. Begun several years ago in Philadelphia, it creates ''schools within schools'' where business representatives join teachers to train high-risk students in skills sought by local industry.

According to Richard Delone, an education consultant with a longstanding involvement in the Philadelphia academies, these programs in half a dozen Philadelphia high schools have much higher attendance than the regular high school - 95 percent vs. 60 percent. ''It's not a dropout prevention program per se, but in many ways it's what it ends up achieving best,'' Mr. Delone says.

In Redwood City and Menlo Park, Calif., the Peninsula Academies train disadvantaged youths - two-thirds of whom are minorities - in skills useful to the area's high-tech industries. Students in small classes establish personal ties with ''mentors'' from a dozen local businesses. ''The kids see reasons for working hard, and it's reflected in everything from discipline to their test scores,'' says project director Charles Dayton.

Academy students consistently achieve higher results on proficiency tests than comparable students outside the program, according to project evaluator Dorothy Reynolds, of the American Institute for Research. That organization has produced a ''replication guide'' for school districts interested in setting up similar programs.

Taking a slightly different approach, a business group called Chicago United has a program introducing students to the working world at company sites. After a morning at school, students go to the career centers where ''they basically learn from people in business the pertinence of what they're doing in school,'' says Pete Henderson, Chicago United executive director. He says the students, many of whom were among their schools' most difficult, achieve better-than-average attendance.

Interest around the country in such programs is growing - in part because the federal Job Training Partnership Act, a scaled-down replacement of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, provides money for such programs. (Under JTPA the employer pays a participant's salary, whereas under CETA the federal gevernment paid the salary.)

But educators and industry representatives both point out a dilemma: While the number of students who need special help is large, such programs only work well when numbers are small. The bottom line, they say, is that kids need more individual attention and a feeling that what they do matters.

And achieving that, they say, will take money. Many believe there must be a federal effort to address the dropout problem - especially to emphasize that efforts for higher standards must include the dropout and those students who appear likely to follow him.

''Right now there is no national leadership on the issue of dropouts,'' says Eric Butler, director of the Center for Public Service at Brandeis University. ''But if we are serious about addressing this problem, we must make it part of the country's new emphasis on education.''

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