Who Cares What Happens to Dropouts?

Nat Hentoff

In all the continuing debates, pledges, and dead ends involved in education reform, the many ever-present school dropouts are seldom urgently dealt with. What happens to those youngsters?

When I cover the imprisonment of youthful offenders, I find one answer. The majority are dropouts. The others? Who knows or cares, except maybe their families?

In a few school systems, however, troubled administrators and teachers do give a damn. One notable program has been launched in the Indianapolis Public Schools (“IPS Initiative to ‘Reclaim’ Former Students Draws Nearly 100 Back to School,” (Indianapolis Star, August 9, 2011). “These students,” reported Indianapolis Star reporter Kristine Guerra, “are part of a new and ambitious ‘reclamation’ campaign the district launched in early July.”

I wish one of the popular television “reality shows” had covered this story. Writes Guerra: “Every day for a month, about 40 district staff and volunteers, wearing blue shirts with ‘Reclaim Your Future, It’s Not Too Late to Graduate’ scrawled on the back, swarmed neighborhoods and knocked on doors. Their goal: persuade dropouts and former students to come back to school.”

This first rescue sweep was intended to reach five thousand people. After 4,212 were contacted, ninety-one agreed to come back in the fall. According to school officials, this start was a “huge success.” But, commented Guerra, the number of returning students “certainly does little to improve IPS’s plummeting enrollment rate.”

Ah, but Guerra went on to reclaim her story’s significance by quoting School Superintendent Eugene White: “The expectation was to get out and get the message about IPS and attempt to keep the kids we have and seek out those we have lost and those who have dropped out years ago.” White added: “Based on feedback, we also had a number of students who [since] came back to school. They also have gotten people to come back to basic education programs.”

Significantly, in view of the still shadowy prognosis for the Indiana and national economy, the project offers economic as well as educational benefit, notes reporter Guerra: “Reclaiming lost students means recovering lost money. Over the past few years, IPS has lost millions of dollars in state funding—about $8,000 per student—because of declining enrollment.”

Enter the Superintendent again: “When we lose money, we lose programs and people. And we can’t have the kind of district we want if we cut our programs.”

Reporter Guerra then brought a reclaimed student into the conversation: twenty-year-old Darryl Chapman, who said he’s glad the campaign workers came to his house as he was pulling up in his driveway. Chapman’s story is typical: school just didn’t seem appealing to him. He was unmotivated. So he dropped out of Tech High School after ninth grade.

“Years later,” Guerra noted, “he had no stable job and no high school diploma. But he does have a 1-year-old daughter. He wants to go back to school. Then, more school. He’s doing this for his daughter.”

Added student Chapman: “There’s nothing really out here without an education. I want her to be better than I was.”

The fact that students are coming back to school may well attract the attention of those increasingly thinking of leaving. If the reclaimed seem more comfortable and more engaged in class, other out-of-step students could begin to see a wasteland rather than a promised land outside of school.

Across America, more parents are organizing to turn public schools into more welcoming places for their kids by protesting—and increasingly boycotting—standardized testing. Students learn much more from those tests about dealing with stress than how to become lifelong learners.

And more parents—especially in low-income neighborhoods of color whose public schools are noted for their “racial gap” in achievement—are lining up to compete for seats in more flexible charter schools.

Parents whose children remain in regular schools could usefully expend some reformist energy by welcoming back the dropouts and joining their parents in holding these schools accountable for ensuring that all students there are focused on as individual learners. The increasing attention in some classes and schools to “the whole child” makes it less likely that students not understood as individuals will be adrift and unmotivated.

Furthermore, the president of the United States—whether it be Mitt Romney or Barack Obama—should become a motivator to school boards, principals, and teachers by encouraging the reclaiming of dropouts into learning environments that will ensure—by their achievements—that they’ll have no reason to leave again. As a result, the entire school will be energized.

Over the years, having reported inside schools around the country, I can tell pretty soon after visiting a new one—by walking the corridors, listening to conversations in lunchrooms, and spending time in classrooms—whether the kids are being surprised and intrigued by what they’re learning and are eager to find out more of what they didn’t know.

In one such school, an eighth-grader was telling me how different this place was from a previous school he’d been in. “All the teachers I have,” he said with more than a touch of continuing surprise, “know my name. They know who I am.”

I haven’t seen each of his teachers in action, but I expect most of them know what gets him going. Through all my years of schooling in Boston—the William Lloyd Garrison elementary school, Boston Public Latin School, and Northeastern University—I had very few teachers like that. But those are the ones I remember. They got me going in what they were teaching and beyond.

Currently, there’s much bitter strife concerning teacher evaluation, but how many of the evaluation procedures being discussed are designed to identify the teachers who get their students debating and arguing among themselves about what more they want to find out now that they’ve been turned on to learning? Evaluating teachers by the scores their students get in collective standardized tests can’t reveal which teachers galvanize their students to keep learning more about their world and themselves.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if students who keep getting low scores on standardized tests are among those who eventually drop out of school because they figure that they’re dumb when it comes to that academic stuff. But they’re not without interests and curiosity. How can we persuade them to stay?

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).

In all the continuing debates, pledges, and dead ends involved in education reform, the many ever-present school dropouts are seldom urgently dealt with. What happens to those youngsters? When I cover the imprisonment of youthful offenders, I find one answer. The majority are dropouts. The others? Who knows or cares, except maybe their families? In …

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