Curbing Dropouts a Collective Task

KIDS drop out of school mainly because of attitudes and culture. That's why it isn't surprising to learn about the failure of an expensive New York City dropout prevention program. Under political and social pressure in the mid-1980s to improve the retention rate of ``at risk'' youth, especially minority teens, New York focused on 150,000 kids in 98 junior highs and 36 high schools. A variety of methods were used: phoning parents, job counseling, after-school programs, counselors for family problems, and so forth. The effort cost $120 million, or $8,000 per pupil, per year.

A recent Teachers College study showed fewer than half the students in the program improved their attendance. More than half eventually left school. Moreover, the study indicated it didn't matter when students joined the program; those attending for three years were just as likely to drop out as those helped for only one year.

There's truth to statements from New York school officials that the dropout problem needs attention long before students reach their teens. That's why the federal Head Start program - and its state equivalents - need more funding. The anarchic values of peer culture and the street pull on youth, especially in the inner city. It's simply unrealistic to believe that such mind-sets will be changed by a well-intentioned program here and there. The impulse to leave school goes much deeper than programs that merely try to institutionalize ``positive'' urgings can reach.

This doesn't mean that ``at risk'' students past the age of 12 are past hope, however. New York's new school chancellor Joseph Fernandez immediately responded to the Teachers College study with a new and more practical educational answer: spend the dropout money on breaking apart the city's huge high school complexes. Make them over into small, more intimate communities. Create an integrated atmosphere of learning - rather than coming at students with an assortment of outside programs.

Schools, finally, can only do so much. The problem, at heart, is one of family and values.

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