Plan needed to save ‘high-need’ dropouts

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I am very grateful to Maureen Kelleher and Catalyst for their coverage of the issues concerning dropouts and alternative schools (October 1998 and June 1999). As far I can tell, Catalyst is the only Chicago media really covering news regarding the 50 percent of Chicago youth who leave the traditional school system.

Youth Service Project, the agency I work for, runs GED and literacy programming for over 300 youth annually in Humboldt Park with just two full-time staff, but we consistently have a waiting list of over 100 who need our services—by the way, we do not advertise our program; participants are referred by word of mouth. Our great frustration is that we are not able to give this population a more comprehensive program and that we serve only a fraction of those who need services in our community. Probation officers and case workers refer over 10 students a week to us; yet the educational programming we provide is rarely sufficient to meet the complex needs of these participants.

I began working with this dropout population five years ago, and I am always surprised to find how talented, intelligent and ambitious most of these individuals are. Often, I feel like one of the original California gold miners, and I want to shout, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” However, I am continually frustrated by the lack of attention paid to education programs that work with dropouts and, more importantly, the lack of any coordinated, researched, strategic plan to deal with these individuals who leave our schools. Existing programming is a confusing mish-mash that all too often fails to adequately serve the needs of dropouts. The City Colleges of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools are by far the two largest providers of dropout programming; however, neither appears to be following any existing model or research in working with this population.

While we applaud Paul Vallas for funding alternative schools and putting GED night programs in a number of schools, these programs are not adequately designed to meet the needs of the “high-need” dropout. Simple GED classes or traditionally designed alternative schools usually fail to deal with the counseling, mentoring, job training and the social development needs of a great many youth. In the end, these programs, ours included, end up catering to the “high-performing” drop-out who enters classes at a high reading level and with a stable home life. This triage process is caused by outcome pressures from funding sources and the limited resources of staff. Thus, the youth who are most in need of services and most at risk for being a burden to our community through criminal activity or dependence upon welfare are not a target of Chicago’s ill-conceived and uncoordinated system for educating dropouts.

Most young people leave the school system for very valid reasons: They often don’t feel safe at school or traveling to and from school; they don’t feel positively connected to the school or the students (“The teachers didn’t care about me”); they have personal and family problems—financial, legal, pregnancy, etc. GED classes offered two nights a week at the community college or at the local high school is not the answer to the issues that forced these youth from school in the first place. In many cases, these programs repeat the same mistakes of the school system they left. The programs are too impersonal, lack wrap around programming, and are often difficult to attend because of transportation and safety problems.

What is needed now in Chicago is a dropout action plan that has at its core a true desire to salvage the educational futures of our “high-risk” populations. This plan would not only assess the test scores of youth, it would assess their social development and skills in independent living. Funders are often afraid of using these kinds of qualitative assessment tools—the quantitative numbers seem so much more objective. However, these so-called objective numbers are frequently manipulated and misused. For example, in the October 1998 CATALYST issue, much was made of GED passage rates, and I had to chuckle when I read some organizations boast that they passed 70 and 80 percent of their students. What I wanted to know from these organizations is, How many of those same students would have passed the GED without that program? And how many youth did they turn away from their programs due to low test scores upon registration?

There truly is an enormous amount of “gold” in the dropout population, but we need to develop a better plan of mining this gold. We should not just pick the gold off the surface of the mounds of dropouts. We should be willing to dig for it too.

Other cities, such as New York, have a far more extensive and comprehensive system of alternative programming for dropouts. Chicago needs to research and develop a plan that uses successful models for educating dropouts, and it needs to have an organization that is willing to take the lead in implementing this plan.

Most importantly, we need to stop looking at dropouts as a “problem” and instead see this population as an opportunity for educators to be more comprehensive, inclusive and innovative.

Brian Brady, literacy coordinator

Youth Service Project