Grade-school dropouts with nowhere to go

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Fifteen-year-old “Juan,” a dropout from Back of the Yards, struggled throughout elementary school but always intended to finish. But last Spring, as his classmates at Lara Academy paraded in caps and gowns, Juan was facing another year of 8th grade. Instead of enrolling at his assigned transition center, he chose to put his troubled school career behind him. “I just quit going,” he says simply.

Juan is but one of 1,548 Chicago Public Schools students who dropped out or disappeared from the 6th, 7th and 8th grades last school year, according to numbers provided by the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Blaming sloppy record keeping by schools, the School Board contends that the number of elementary school dropouts is fewer. However, it does not have a number of its own. (See story.)

While the exact number of elementary school dropouts remains in question, educators and attorneys say such children are out there and most likely headed for trouble.

“They’ve been the silent dropouts that no one really talks about,” observes Patricia Preston, director for alternative education at City Colleges of Chicago, who has tried to get the Illinois Legislature to fund programs for this neglected group. “I don’t believe they have an advocacy voice yet other than those of us in alternative schools,” she says.

By the Consortium’s count, at least 75 percent of pre-high school dropouts in Chicago were under 16, the age when dropping out is legal. They stopped showing up at their elementary schools or disappeared between 8th and 9th grades.

The other 25 percent departed from “transition” schools for students aged 15 and older who are repeating 8th grade. At least some of these dropouts likely had turned 16.

Sixteen-year-olds who quit school have productive alternatives to high school, such as full-time employment, job training programs and GED programs.

For the younger, illegal dropout, these options are closed. “There’s no structured program for them,” Preston of City Colleges says. “What do they do? Sit around until they’re 16, get involved in criminal activity, get involved in drugs.” That’s what happened to Juan. (See story.)

In recent years, the School Board has given unprecedented support to dropout recovery programs, but, consistent with state law, these, too, exclude children under 16. Youth Connection Charter School, an umbrella for private alternative schools partnering with CPS, gets district money for 1,550 dropouts aged 16 to 21.

Yet younger students occasionally come knocking at the alternative school door, staff say. Principal Pa Joof at Prologue Alternative High School in Uptown can think of two such kids who are now serving jail time. “The funny part of it is that they can’t do a program like this until they’re 16, but they can put them in jail,” he remarks.

Attorney Angela Coin of the Northwestern University Legal Clinic invariably finds that her juvenile clients charged with the worst crimes have been truant or expelled for a year or more. That fact has become a standard part of her defense: “Judge, he hasn’t even had the benefit of school for awhile.”

Elementary school dropouts are indeed over represented in the criminal justice system: While only five percent of juveniles who entered state prisons in 1997 were under 16, 28 percent had no high school education, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.

Social services needed

The dropout rate for elementary school children is small compared to that for high school. The Consortium finds that 1.6 percent of 6th- to 8th-graders left school last year. The School Board reports last year’s high school dropout rate as 15.2 percent.

Kids drop out of elementary school for primarily the same reasons as they drop out of high school, school staff say. Academic failure tops the list.

To reduce academic failure, the administration of CEO Paul Vallas has spent millions on after-school tutoring, summer school and university partners for low-performing schools. At some schools, principals were replaced.

The extra help and pressure boosted standardized test scores but, so far, has had limited impact on dropout rates in both elementary and high schools. (See story on page 8.)

Melissa Roderick of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration says that to keep more students in school, the school system needs to pay more attention to social services. Her research has found that even with “fantastic teachers in the best schools,” some students fail to progress.

Recently she studied 102 low-achieving 6th- and 8th-graders at five CPS elementary schools to see how they responded to the School Board policy requiring minimum test scores to earn promotion to the next grade level.

While the policy motivated many of them, the most troubled students made little effort and were ultimately retained, she observed. “When I talk to these kids, they have so many problems out of school—it’s almost like they’re not present in school.”

Over-age students with low academic skills are at the greatest risk of dropping out, research has shown.

“Kids don’t get double retained [or] drop out at 15 because they don’t care,” Roderick explains. “Those are kids that have significant problems in multiple dimensions.”

The underlying reasons for academic failure and dropping out often are complex: depression, neighborhood violence, family dysfunction. For some kids, gangs, drugs or pregnancy contribute to the downward spiral.

However, troubled students rarely are unreachable, says Dr. William McMiller, who directs a community mental health clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. McMiller believes that if he had a team to counsel children whose parents were entering or being released from jail, he could prevent many from dropping out or being placed in special education. “Just that specific focus would go a long way,” he says.

Counseling services for children in crisis are few. In Chicago elementary schools, one full-time counselor serves up to 1,200 kids. The student load is even heavier for psychiatrists and social workers, who typically split their time among several elementary schools.

For all three positions, special education services—not mental health counseling—get top priority, school staff say.

At Randolph Elementary School in West Englewood, for example, special education testing and paperwork are “so cumbersome, time consuming and directed by laws that specify deadlines” that the social worker has no time for anything else, says Principal Joan Forte. “Which is really terrible and a shame.”

Schools have state and federal poverty funds to purchase extra staff, but adding a social worker can mean sacrificing a teacher. “I can’t even afford enough teachers,” insists Principal Patricia Kent of Penn elementary in North Lawndale.

Short-term grants or free services from neighborhood agencies can fill some gaps in social services. But counseling, the most needed service, is also among the hardest to find, according to Tara Raju of Communities in Schools, a non-profit that solicits free social services for 100 schools in Chicago. “There is counseling out there, but is it free of charge? Probably not. Can they come to the school? Probably not.”

One professional who works with schools says the need for social services is so great that meeting it would cost a fortune. SuAnne Lawrence of the Youth Guidance Comer Project, a nationally recognized school reform model now in 20 CPS elementary schools, once calculated that just one of her schools would need 15 social workers to do the needed individual counseling. “It’s fiscally impossible,” she says.

The Comer Project deals with this reality by helping teachers learn strategies for reducing student misbehavior and apathy.

When students in crisis act out, Lawrence explains, frustrated teachers often alienate them further. For instance, during a recent school visit, a school social worker was telling her about a boy whose family had just been evicted. Just then, the boy’s teacher burst in, complaining that he was driving her crazy. “She wanted the social worker to do something about it right now [and] to have him suspended.”

Lawrence adds that efforts to improve teacher-student relationships are most successful when principals expect and model caring behavior. “Leadership is key,” she says.

Elementary schools not only are short on social services to help keep kids in school, they also lack staff to go looking for the ones who have left. In September 1992, the School Board eliminated the district’s 153 truant officers to save $4 million and balance the budget.

That school year, the number of missing elementary students shot up 70 percent—from 825 in 1991-92 to 1,408 in 1992-93, according to the Consortium’s analysis. The annual total subsequently has bounced up and down but never returned to its 1992 low.

Chronic truancy in CPS elementary schools also jumped the year truant officers were laid off. It continued to rise for a number of years but by 1998 had returned to 1992 levels, according to a Catalyst analysis of data posted to the School Board’s web site. It has been creeping upward since then, hitting 2.4 percent last school year, Catalyst finds.

After 1992, both the state and city launched initiatives to curb truancy, but most have been dropped or scaled back. High schools continue to receive some money to help compensate for the loss of truant officers, but elementary schools are left largely to their own resources. Many are short-handed, principals report.

For example, Libby elementary in New City uses every aide and teacher to phone the homes of truant students or mail parents official warnings, according to Principal Beverly Blake. The school’s chronic truancy rate was 16 percent; last year, 126 students had 18 or more days of unexcused absence.

Like many schools, Libby tries to help families solve some of the problems that keep children out of school; for instance, it donates needed clothing.

However, it has a hard time making home visits. The school’s full-time community liaison can’t do it alone, says Blake. Parent volunteers pitch in but are afraid to go to certain areas. Regional office staff will help hunt down missing students; but with some 100 schools to cover, their assistance is limited. “We don’t give up [but] sometimes we have chronic truants that we can’t get back in,” she says.

Court is the last resort for dealing with parents of truant students. Last year, 93 cases of elementary school truancy were prosecuted, according to Samuel Davis, a School Board administrator who handles those cases. This year, the number dwindled to 25 to 30 as other priorities took his time.

Principals say that the threat of legal action often get results from previously uncooperative parents. However, they complain that, in practice, the process has no teeth. No Chicago parent has ever been fined, jailed or ordered to perform community service because of children’s truancy, according to Davis.

Typically, a judge gives parents 30 days to improve their children’s attendance before returning to court, says Rickey Dorsey, director of high school truancy prevention. Once attendance improves, the judge generally drops the case, he finds. Then, if attendance slips again, the school must refile the case, which is likely to have the same outcome, he observes.

Presiding Municipal Court Judge Jacqueline Cox counters that truancy is a social problem that doesn’t belong in court. “What do you want to do? Put a mother behind bars? Then [students] are really going to miss school.” If the schools have a better system in mind, she says, “We’d like to see it.”

Truants can slip through another crack in the transition from elementary school to high school: There is no clear policy for tracking down no-show 9th-graders.

Elizabeth Elizando, who oversees truancy prevention in elementary schools through the Office of Schools and Regions, says that high schools are supposed to find such students. Dorsey, who oversees high school truancy prevention through the Office of High School Development, says that, officially, it’s the elementary schools’ job. However, in an effort to boost their official enrollment and, thereby, the size of their faculties, high schools often do search for missing freshmen, he says. The search typically ends at the 20th day of school, which is when the official enrollment count is taken, he adds.

High School truancy staff who spoke with Catalyst say they do indeed look for missing freshmen, sometimes with help from staff at their regional office. But most agree with Dorsey that the chase ends by late September. “When the child doesn’t appear after 20 days, we put them down as a no-show and drop them off the roles,” reports attendance officer William Harvey of Crane High School.

Regardless of the precise number of students who never make it into high school, the group is relatively small, advocates and researchers acknowledge.

However, Melissa Roderick of the University of Chicago notes that many 8th-graders who make the transition fall apart in the first weeks of high school and soon drop out. “And that’s a huge group,” she observes. Beefing up social services in elementary schools, says Roderick, would help both groups stay in school.