Knock, knock: It's Houston's new truancy gambit

A city with one of the nation's highest dropout rates sends volunteers door-to-door.

Juan Garcia knows how close he came to being a high-school dropout.

Growing up in public housing, running with a gang, and pulling down poor grades, he had all but given up on his future.

Now, he's a director at a local college, working on his PhD - and all it took was someone who cared, he says.

Mr. Garcia is one of a small army of Houston volunteers trying to be that person who cares, joining Houston's inaugural "Reach Out to Dropouts Day" - a city effort on Saturday in which 100 volunteers knocked on the doors of 800 students who hadn't shown up to school in the first two weeks of classes.

To the city, it was a success: Some parents, unable to convince their kids to return to school, actually asked officials to send volunteers their way; others, having heard that volunteers might come knocking, had already sent their children back to class.

To education experts, too, such programs are good, innovative ideas - but keeping at-risk kids in school takes more than just getting them through the front door, they say.

For its part, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) says it has plenty of programs in place - such as work-study, mentoring, tutoring, and credit-recovery classes - to ease the way for returning students.

While Saturday's method was unorthodox, the issue of dropouts is a serious one. Texas has one of the lowest high-school graduation rates in the country, losing about 30 percent of ninth graders by their senior years.

Other states with high dropout rates have tried everything from revoking students' drivers licenses to hauling parents in for counseling. Now Houston is trying the compassionate approach, with volunteers - including the wife of Mayor Bill White - listening to students' problems, giving advice, and encouraging them to come back.

"For the most part, these are not students who are just staying at home for the fun of it," said Marilyn Balke-Lowry, the project's coordinator, at a recent training session. "They may have family issues, cultural issues, economic reasons for not coming to school. So in addition to persuading them to come back, we also need to be problem solvers."

Indeed, Texas has some the country's most ethnically diverse school districts, with roughly 74,000 students added each year. The highest percentage of those are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, making their education all the more important.

"We've got to keep those kids in school and graduate them," says Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who specializes in school finance. "We can't have a third of our students dropping out of high school; there are no jobs for them anymore. Many will wind up in permanent poverty or in prison, contributing mightily to our social ills."

Mr. Wood is representing some 270 Texas school districts in a lawsuit against the state, claiming that Texas lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional duty to adequately fund all schools and thus properly educate students.

The dropout rate has become the center of the case, which began a few weeks ago in Austin. Indeed, according to the RAND Corporation, only 17 percent of job applicants in Texas have the necessary education skills for today's labor market - an alarming figure considering that 85 percent of jobs require skilled or professional education.

And the trial falls in a state where education issues tend to be especially charged: Secretary of Education Rod Paige was once superintendent of the HISD, and President Bush has touted the state's education reforms as a success story and a national model - yet with such a high dropout rate, those claims have grown increasingly controversial.

In addition to putting kids on the streets without an education, high dropout rates result in unrealistic test scores. "It's a double whammy," says Wood. "It doesn't educate students and it leaves schools with a false sense of security, that they are doing better than they are."

So far, much of the trial testimony has revolved around what the state's real dropout numbers are. An expert for the prosecution said nearly one-third of high school students drop out before graduation, while the state claims there is only a 5 percent dropout rate (though even education officials admit that number is not believable).

But everyone agrees that calculating the numbers is difficult.

The HISD, for instance, was put on probation last year for severely underreporting high school dropouts. The district placed part of the blame on the state's complicated system for tracking dropouts. It spent the past year recalculating its numbers and just this month had its "acceptable" rating restored.

The new numbers show that Houston's overall graduation rate last year was 72 percent, but a recently released Johns Hopkins University report, "Locating the Dropout Crisis," shows that the district, with a total of 32 high schools, has 20 with "weak promoting power" - meaning they lose up to 60 percent of their ninth graders by the senior year. That was one of the lowest scores in the study.

At a recent training session, Garcia was one of dozens who learned about combating figures like those. He was taught how to listen, respond to problems with solutions, and be a "goodwill ambassador" for the schools.

After an evening of role playing, he headed out armed with anticipation and a sense of what one person can do.

"I was headed in the wrong direction," says Garcia of his own school days. "All my friends were dropping out of school, and I was on my way. But I had a really good mentor who was able to get me back on the right track as far as my education was concerned. If I can help one student like that, it will be worth it."

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