Push to win back dropouts

The dropout rate in the US officially hovers around 10 percent.

Chris Ahnert left high school because he figured he didn't have the credits to graduate, anyway.

Aziz Animashan left after he got kicked off the basketball team – the only thing keeping him there.

Stacy Del Real didn't want to go back to the same environment where, she says, "there were bad things happening all around me."

All three are now trying once again, at an intensive live-in program in downstate Illinois.

This fall, as America's students head back to school, there's an extra push to bring back America's dropouts as well – if not to traditional public school, then to GED programs, alternative learning centers, anything that can get them moving forward again.

Recent studies have shown that the nation's dropout rate, officially hovering around 10 percent, has been severely undercounted for years.

The high numbers – combined with research showing dropouts are far more likely to be in prison, on public assistance, or jobless – have many educators thinking about how to keep those students from ever leaving.

In addition to prevention programs, a small number of districts, counties, and organizations are reaching out to those who already have dropped out.

"This is not a new issue, but it's getting a lot more attention," says Nancy Martin, a senior program associate with the American Youth Policy Forum, and coauthor of the study: "Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities Are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth."

"With districts feeling the heat because the sheet is getting pulled off this a bit, I think there is much more interest and willingness to say, how can we keep these kids in school, and if a huge number has left school, can we really see them as having left the district's responsibility? I hope the answer is no," she says.

Dropout rates are difficult to determine, and often controversial. One recent study found that about a third of the students who started high school four years ago didn't graduate on time. Other studies have put the graduation rate around 70 percent, or as high as 80 percent. Among minorities, some studies have it around 50 percent, and some large cities graduate fewer than half of their students.

Last year, the National Governors Association adopted a resolution that would set, for the first time, a common standard for tracking graduation and reporting rates – a big step forward, experts say, although it is nonbinding. Until that happens, many districts are hesitant to try more accurate methods that might show how they're failing.

But if reporting the problem needs a common standard, educators are finding that dealing with the problem needs as many varieties as possible.

In her study, Ms. Martin found that the ones that worked best didn't try to replicate high school but offered scheduling flexibility, connections to jobs, and structure. "A lot of this is what we need for all young people," she says.

In Trenton, N.J., for instance, the Daylight/Twilight High School runs from 7:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night, and lets students attend in one of three four-hour sessions. There's no lunch or extracurriculars, and students get their elective credits through community service or apprenticeships.

Teachers don't discipline – if a student is acting up, they'll motion to the door while continuing to teach, and the student will leave, knowing they'll be heard by the principal or a group of peers later – yet the school had no suspensions or serious incidents last year. For the past three years, the school has graduated more than 500 students a year, who meet all the traditional state standards.

"We do everything we can to be user-friendly," says William Tracy, the school's principal, noting that the school's seven sites include some in apartment buildings. "Now we don't have to recruit, we just keep opening sites."

Another program was spearheaded by a county – not typically a player in education policy. Deborah Feldman, the county administrator for Montgomery County in Ohio, says she realized several years ago that half of their budget was going toward criminal justice and human services, but they were doing nothing to keep people from entering those systems.

"There was no place for a second chance," she says. "We needed to institutionalize the issue." Ms. Feldman helped create and fund a county "Fast Forward Center" that reaches out to dropouts and refers them to a variety of second-chance programs, depending on their needs. It's helped 1,000 dropouts graduate, and she says that in the five years since they started, the 16 school districts in the county lowered their dropout rate from a combined 25 percent average to about 12 percent.

In Rantoul, Ill., meanwhile, Chris, Aziz, and Stacy, have entered Lincoln ChalleNGe Academy, one of 30 programs around the country run by the National Guard.

For five and a half months, students, or cadets as they're called at Lincoln, live in a structured, quasi-military environment in which they work toward their GED and develop personal goals and a plan that includes college, a career, or the military. Once they leave, trained mentors will continue to meet with them regularly and report back to the school.

"A lot of our cadets are first generational completers of anything," says Hattie LeNoir-Price, the recruitment, placement, and mentors coordinator. "Their parents can't answer their questions."

Cadets wake up at 5:15 a.m., do PT (physical training), and address adults as "sir" or "ma'am." But it's voluntary, and administrators emphasize that it's not a boot camp or funnel to the military. Besides the structure, they say, what's crucial is believing in the students.

"A lot of kids have been told they're stupid, and that's an illegal word here," says Col. Richard Norris, the lead instructor. In an environment that recognizes kids' different learning styles, he says he can see kids jump up three or four grade levels in just five months. "The biggest thing is being able to show these kids open doors, and keep them open.... When they realize you're not going to give up on them, that's when they start to come around. It's a trust issue."

Nationally, there are 30 Youth ChalleNGe programs, which are funded through a combination of federal and state dollars, and five more are starting this year. Of the 67,000 kids they've graduated, 96 percent have either gone to college, the military, or started career-track jobs, says Greg Sharp, president of the National Guard Youth Foundation. About three-quarters get either a GED or a high school diploma.

"We have all these programs after a kid gets in trouble, but very few prevention programs," he says. "We can't solve the whole problem, but we can make a huge dent."

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