$24 million proposed for dropouts

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On the heels of the release of a report that finds Illinois spends too little on recapturing dropouts, state education officials are recommending that programs serving dropouts get a significant hike in funding—the first in at least a decade.

The Illinois State Board of Education has proposed raising the budget for the department that serves dropouts, as well as truants and students at risk of leaving school, by 33 percent, to more than $24 million.

Interest in the fate of those who drop out has been building since October, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich convened a special task force to examine difficulties dropouts were having when they tried to re-enroll in school. State Board of Education Chairman Jesse Ruiz is heading the task force.

The extra cash will help fill a gaping hole in funding for programs that serve some 20,000 dropouts who attempt to re-enroll in school to earn a high school diploma or a GED, according to a report recently released by the task force.

“It is a first step,” says Jack Wuest, a member of the taskforce and executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, an advocacy group for schools that serve dropouts. Currently, dropout programs are brief and not as comprehensive as they need to be, he says. Programs are also underfunded, he adds. According to the task force report, an average of $1,500 is spent on dropouts, while the state average for students enrolled in high school is $8,786.

The result is that fewer than one in four students who re-enroll succeeds in actually getting a diploma or GED, the report notes.

“It is like being trained to run a marathon by walking around the block a few times,” he says. “These programs are given virtually nothing and are supposed to help students who need a lot.”

More slots available

The additional funding will help programs like Jobs for Youth serve more dropouts. Right now, the program has 125 slots in its GED program, which has a three-month waiting list, says Executive Director Robert Barnett. By the time a space opens up, often these teens have lost interest, landed a job or signed up for some other program, he adds.

This year, Jobs for Youth revamped its GED program to offer more instructional time for smaller groups of students. The goal is to get higher pass rates on the GED exam. Currently, about 40 percent pass.

GED programs often are the best bet for young people who leave high school then decide they want to come back. Irene Juaniza, director of the advocacy group Blocks Together for Youth, says teens often have trouble re-enrolling in regular and alternative high schools. “The regular high schools see them as problem kids and don’t want them back,” she says.

Just to get records transferred over, they have to be “extremely persistent,” she says.

The task force report also recommended tailoring dropout programs to meet the needs of different types of students, and reprogramming student information systems to include students who are enrolled in high school for five or six years. Only a few school districts in Illinois have such a system in place, Wuest says.

When implemented in other states, the reported graduation rates dropped significantly, pointing to the higher than anticipated need for more dropout programs, he says.