Dropout 'Contract' Tells Students of a Tough Future

''Don't drop out: It's not worth it." For four years, North High School principal Joe Sandoval fought unremittingly to get that message through to students at the largely bilingual Denver school. Until a month ago, he kept coming up empty.

North High entered the school year with the highest dropout rate among the city's 10 public high schools. Out of a student body of 1,800, North dropouts totaled 561 last year - nearly twice the number at any other Denver high school.

"When we looked at the dropout rate at the end of last year, it was horrendous," says Mr. Sandoval. The superintendent of Denver schools then gave Sandoval a prompt and clear message: "Do something about it."

It could be that the pressure helped unleash Sandoval's creative streak.

In short order he came up with a plan that's getting notice from educators nationwide, and already has helped slow North's dropout rate. Instead of a diploma, Sandoval decided he'd hand students a "dropout certificate." But to make that piece of paper official, students first must sign a disclaimer, which states, "I realize that I will not have the necessary skills to survive in the 21st century."

Although the program began only a month ago, already four would-be North dropouts chose to stay in school after coming face-to-face with the disclaimer. "When the kids come into the office and see that, they don't want it," Sandoval says. "It's tangible. It's something they have in their hands in black and white. That works."

The disclaimer, in a two-column list, enumerates the skills a student will lack, including reading, writing, problem-solving, leadership, and responsibility. It also includes a chart comparing the $585 average monthly wage of a dropout with the $1,077 monthly wage the average high school graduate earns.

The certificates program is really one component of a broad, aggressive plan to keep North's students from leaving. Individual counseling, a heavy emphasis on attendance, and even student buttons bearing the "Don't Drop Out" message are other parts of the effort, Sandoval says.

Students who want to drop out also must be accompanied by their parents when they meet with Sandoval. In the past, the school required parents only to make a telephone call giving permission. "Before, we made it too easy for students to drop out," Sandoval says.

But some observers harbor doubts about the new program. Margaret LeCompte, a professor of educational sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and an expert on dropout patterns, sees North's effort as a quick fix for a complex problem.

The motives behind dropping out are often wildly varied, she points out. Students may leave school because they're bored, their English is poor, or because of pregnancy or other family demands.

When kids may be facing any number of obstacles in school, it won't help simply to have them sign a contract that labels them as a loser, she says. "It's blaming the victim."

Nevertheless, Denver school administrators are heartened by the early success of the dropout-busting certificate plan. "It's nice to take a negative situation, and turn it into something positive," says Bernadette Seick, assistant superintendent for Denver's secondary schools. "We've received calls about this from states all over the country."

Interest in the dropout certificate has become so overwhelming that Sandoval put up an Internet site to refer callers to. "We've gotten more than 300 inquiries, and it keeps growing every day," he says.

Could dropout certificates one day become a universal standard to help keep kids in school? "We'll be anxious to see what happens," Ms. Seick says.

Sandoval acknowledges the difficulty of turning around a high dropout rate, as well as the fact that some dropouts simply disappear without any discussion. But for now, he says, the certificate is having an impact. Yet the message is no different from what he's been repeating all along: "Kids can't succeed unless they're in school."

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