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Drop Out

Experts share key strategies for improving urban education and reducing dropout rates.

The joke among the mostly African-American students and even some teachers at Chicago Vocational High School in the 1980s had been that CVS was an acronym for crime, violence and sex. CVS was a place where many teenagers carried guns and knives, gangs had brawls, bullies ruled, and boys raped girls in bathrooms.

And it was a place where 70 percent of students dropped out, only to end up on street corners or in prison, and remain in poverty, according to Michael Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

But that changed in 1991 when Principal Betty Despenza-Green came on board. Serving 2,700 students in a former physical plant that covered 750,000 square feet, CVS was transformed into eight small schools within the building with the help of the Small Schools Workshop. Each small school, including the School of Architecture and Art, was organized around a broad career cluster while vocational and academic teachers met regularly to plan integrated units of study and cater lessons to individual student needs.

"I'm somewhat sympathetic to the pressure [districts] are under, but it's totally wrong to push kids out of school to make the numbers look better." -Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman, National Education Association

The results led to the school's recognition in 1997 as one of the top five New Urban High Schools named by the U.S. Department of Education. The school's dropout rate had decreased from about 70 percent to about 8 percent, Klonsky says.

But when Green retired a few years ago, new leadership reversed the small schools idea back to the big school it was, annihilating the personalized feel of the small schools, Klonsky says. The result is a broken school with teachers and staff quitting and droves of students dropping out--again, he says.

Smaller is Better

The rise and fall of CVS points to the pivotal role small schools play in helping to encourage students so they don't drop out and instead go on to higher education or a well-paying job. A nationwide trend is growing where large schools, such as those in Washington, New York and California, are getting broken into smaller schools, and small high schools are popping up, thanks in part to grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"There is less a feeling of alienation in small schools and more of a real community feel," says educator and author Michelle Fine. "The curriculum is radically reconfigured and small schools tend to have more student-inquiry, performance-based assessments and rigorous curricula."

Fine is the author of Framing Dropouts: Notes on the Politics of an Urban Public High School and a professor of psychology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Small schools also spend less time on discipline because everyone knows each other, she says.

While many districts in the country grapple with a dropout problem, the concern is acute in urban areas, where most students are minority and/or low-income. A national study, by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, found that nearly half of black and Latino students never graduate. "Most people would say there is a problem about the alienation of high school students generally," says Clarence Stone, editor of Changing Urban Education and co-author of Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools. "There is no strong agreement about what that is." Maybe schools are having a harder time getting children's attention because the generation in school today grew up with highly visual stimulation, he says. Methods that might have held kids attention in class before, isn't doing so today.

Many factors, experts say, contribute to dropouts in urban schools: less experienced and lower-paid teachers; fewer dollars and resources; less educated parents; and strong teacher unions. These unions can control teacher placement, for example, transferring more experienced teachers from low-performing schools to better-performing schools.

NCLB Pressures

Recent cases in Houston Independent School District and New York City reveal, in part, the strain administrators undergo to have students perform well. In Houston, the dropout rate decreased around 2,000 students "radically overnight"--according to Dorothy Shipps, assistant professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University. In New York City school officials are accused of pushing out low-performing students.

Efforts to get comments from school officials in Houston and New York City public schools were unsuccessful.

While high-stakes tests and No Child Left Behind are designed to help at-risk children, the combination adds more stress for administrators. It doesn't surprise some experts that some districts would underreport dropout rates or even push low-performing students out to avoid dragging down test score averages. Federal dollars are at stake if a district has a failing Title I school.

"School districts, particularly large urban districts, are facing increasing pressure related to the budget crisis, to the requirements of No Child Left Behind and to the legitimate pressures from communities and parents to do better by their kids," says Marla Ucelli, staff director of School Communities that Work: A National Task Force on the Future of Urban Districts, which was established in 2000 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

"I'm somewhat sympathetic to the pressure they [districts] are under, but it's totally wrong to push kids out of school to make the numbers look better," adds Kathleen Lyons, spokeswoman for National Education Association. "It's kind of an Enron accounting problem coming back to bite them. It's despicable what has occurred."

Some experts agree that Houston and New York City aren't alone. They say dropout rates are underreported in other urban districts, but it is not as overt. "In Chicago, I found kids who were counseled not to come to school on test day," Shipps says during her study of Chicago schools.

Some students that stop showing up to class are right under administrators' noses--hanging out in the gymnasium, locker rooms, or outside on school grounds, as was the case in Chicago during a study a few years ago. "The students gave various reasons for cutting class, including that they didn't know the material, they felt like they wouldn't pass anyway, they couldn't read a particular book because it was too hard, they lost a week (due to illness) and they were behind and a teacher would kill them if they didn't have their homework done," Shipps says.

Getting an Accurate Count

One of the big reasons that quantifying the dropout problem in urban areas remains a moving target is simply because there is no standard method for determining who is a dropout. How dropouts are calculated varies across districts--making it near impossible to compare districts to each other. Some rates are determined by counting ninth graders that enter school compared to graduating seniors four years later. Some rates are determined year to year. But some students transfer to another district or move. Even districts in Texas can use a "leaver" code to explain students who disappear, ranging from those pursuing a General Equivalency Diploma to those going to prison to those going back across the border to Mexico.

While urban education is "getting better," schools are focusing more on testing than on learning, Lyons says. "The one-size-fits-all program in No Child Left Behind" to bring students of all abilities, races, cultures and backgrounds together is "not only unrealistic, but it's foolish," he adds.

Reading early is another key player in dropout rates. "Learning to read from K-3 plays a big role in whether or not students stay through high school and graduate," says Richard Johnson, research associate at International Reading Association.

Having a program that not only emphasizes basic reading skills but also teaches children how to extract information and navigate through dense text is not covered much in school--which can spell disaster, Johnson says.

And as students grow older and class work includes more dense text, lacking this key knowledge creates a snowball effect. "[Students] find themselves lost and confused, and they get frustrated. They begin to duck and dodge and ditch class, act out, belittle the content. They decide the content has no meaning for them when in actuality they just can't handle it and can't meet the demands of their teachers. [This] does eventually contribute to dropouts," Johnson says.

IRA's new urban commission is devising strategies to ensure districts have enough money and resources for such a necessary program.

Teacher Passions and Early Starts

Most experts and educators agree that teacher quality plays a huge role in keeping students interested and successful in school work. One group of experts says well-paid teachers are key in raising achievement, while others say if someone knows a subject well, that person can teach. "The big debate in Washington now is how important teachers are to raising achievement in schools as compared to testing more," says Robert Rueda, professor at Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. "I think teacher preparation is really key."

But the method to bridge the gap between students on the cusp of dropping out and achieving academically is still unclear.

"That's the 64 million dollar question," says Darryl Figueroa, NEA spokeswoman. "It starts with teachers who can make children believe they can do it. One of the most critical needs is having teachers and staff members to have high expectations. ... And small classes are needed to back that up."

And although money is not the only answer, money helps when it comes to hiring more teachers or more experienced teachers, reconfiguring big high school buildings into small schools, and providing more resources, such as computers, books and after-school programs. "The reality is that suburban schools have a lot more money to work with," Figueroa says. "The budget is being fueled by property taxes, which you don't have in the city system."

Arthur Levine, president of the Teachers College at Columbia University and an expert in urban district issues, says the U.S. government's priorities are ill-formed. "There is something so horrible in the fact that we [as a nation] find money when it's necessary to go to war or bail out businesses," Levine says, "and we haven't found money for children--namely poor kids and kids of color."

Stone, a professor emeritus in the government and politics department at the University of Maryland, Rueda, and Levine say early education is another step in deterring dropouts in high school, particularly in urban districts where many children don't have books at home or parents with educational degrees, and don't have access to cultural experiences.

Atlanta's Community

Atlanta Public Schools, among the top five urban districts in the nation last year according to the Broad Foundation, struggles with its own dropout rate. Getting a little support from its friends is helping.

Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization designed to prevent dropouts and help children succeed, has been in Atlanta for about 30 years. Now, CIS is in 31 states and 2,500 school sites serving two million children.

In Atlanta, CIS officials get involved most in the Project Grad program, that started about four years ago under Superintendent Beverly Hall. It's a whole school reform initiative that targets 29 of the most struggling and poor schools to make sure children graduate high school and attend college, according to Patty Pflum, executive director of Atlanta's Communities in Schools.

The initiative starts in kindergarten, preparing the child for success. Administrators make sure students get the best math and reading curricula and support for non-instructional issues, including attendance, parental involvement and behavioral issues.

CIS gets involved where school employees, such as social workers or guidance counselors, can't due to time constraints and other barriers, Pflum says. CIS officials might speak with a student and the student's family if the student misses three days of school.

Some students might feel more inclined to tell his or her problems to a CIS official. CIS also helps with incentive programs, such as rewarding a homeroom class with perfect attendance for 20 days with a pizza party and prizes from local businesses.

CIS also finds organizations that run after-school mentoring programs to ensure children who need it, get it. And they help set up workshops for parents, teaching them how to help their children with homework, for example.


Levine predicts that in order to see real change in urban districts, to ensure massive numbers of students don't drop out, it will take committed action among parents, leaders and community and business people. "It is going to take litigation [against school districts], voting smarter, parents taking to the streets..., walking on City Hall, picketing... whatever it takes."

And Klonsky says small schools are the way to go but "are we willing to do it? What is the commitment from the community?"

"There will be a struggle in the next 10 years. Not just in schools but in industry and government. Big institutions that look and run like factories are becoming obsolete. But there's still a resistance," Klonsky adds. "What we're seeing is a kind of revolution in thinking and the small schools are just touching the surface of it."

Omaha's Urban Woes

In Nebraska, where acres of fields and land might appear as a natural fortress, students in Omaha public schools struggle with their own urban woes.

The city's 81 public schools have migrant students and students speaking 40 different languages. While the dropout rate for 2002-03 was 11 percent, a higher dropout rate than in past years, Superintendent John Mackiel is not discouraged. He speculates the high rate may be more a symptom of the economic downturn, as youths are expected to help provide the family income, and less of a reflection of the district. He says the district has several fairly new programs that keep students less alienated and more excited about learning from kindergarten on.

Several factors contribute to dropouts in Omaha, Mackiel says. The state, as do other states, allows students to drop out of school at age 16. And employers are hiring young people without asking for school transcripts. Mackiel says laws must be changed to stop promoting dropouts and employers must start working with schools to keep students in class.

Nebraska is 50th on a scale of 1 to 50 in terms of the amount of money the state provides for public education, Mackiel says. In 1998, the district formed a committee of people, including parents, educators and teachers, to devise an equity finance model. The model, which was initiated four years ago, takes into account such items as gifted and talented programs and the number of children that apply for free and reduced lunch in a particular school. Funding allocations are then based on need.

It started with a phone call

In 1994, when Jerry Hoberman moved his business, Tires Inc., just outside the inner city of Omaha, he received a call from Cornelius Jackson, former elementary school principal of Belvedere Academy. Jackson asked if he would give back to his community by adopting a school. Hoberman visited the school and found that printers didn't work, playground equipment was nonexistent, and only a few, archaic computers decorated the classrooms.

So helping became a "passion" for Hoberman and his wife, Cookie. They held a carnival and raised $50,000 to buy computers and printers. Hoberman also used his own incentive program, the Winners Circle program, in the school. He rewards students when they work hard and perform well. Now, the Winners Circle Educational Foundation has 2,000 students participating, most of whom are African-American and from low-income families.

Each student, teacher and parent signs a slip that explains the student's goals. Students have goal buddies, including family members, who visit the classroom twice each quarter to encourage them to meet goals. When students reach their goals, they are invited to a celebration with prizes, music and a visit from the mayor. "It's so important that someone is there to encourage, give recognition," Hoberman says. "Someone on the outside of the education community is congratulating them."

Welcome to the X Files

Every student in Omaha has X files, which includes a student's proficiency test results in writing, reading and math. These also include attendance records and participation in clubs and organizations. These are files that employers can ask for when thinking about hiring a student--validating how important school success is, Mackiel says.

The district also has a Greeters Program and Nia (Swahili for "purpose") Guardians program, in which black men and women greet children in selected schools before class on a weekly basis. "An adult is taking the time and consistently there ... greeting and encouraging them to focus on school and have a great day," Mackiel says.

CEOs of Omaha businesses also visit schools to encourage students to stay in school. Among those stopping by, Warren Buffett, an Omaha investor worth about $35 billion, and among the richest men in the U.S. "It's one thing to talk about dropout rates," Mackiel says, "and it's another thing to have CEOs discussing the importance of remaining in school."

Angela Pascopella is features editor.