Turning dropouts into grads

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 5, 2013

I first heard about “dropout recovery” about a year ago from a student at St. Petersburg College, a 25-year-old Bostonian who had dropped out of school in the 11th grade.
I asked him to write about his experiences. He dropped out because he “got caught up in a street gang and stopped caring about school.” He was preparing to move to New York’s Spanish Harlem to live with his older brother when a counselor from the Boston Re-Engagement Center, or REC, knocked on his family’s apartment door and asked for him by name.
The counselor persuaded him to visit the REC. During that first visit, he discovered that “deep down” he wanted to return to school. He graduated a year later and moved to St. Petersburg to be with his girlfriend and their daughter.

“The REC teachers let me take my time, and I finished all my courses in one year,” he wrote. “I didn’t get a GED. I received a real high school diploma. Now I’m at SPC. I don’t know where I would be if the REC lady hadn’t knocked on our door. It wasn’t easy. Some of my old gang members stopped by our apartment all the time. My teachers were patient, and they showed me how to focus on my goals.”
I have since learned that my former student is one among some 600,000 other students nationally who drop out of high school every year, a trend that has serious ramifications. According to the Social Science Research Council, nearly 6 million 16- to 24-year-olds are not attending school and are unemployed.
They are referred to as the “disconnected,” a group that survives primarily on government aid and assistance from relatives and friends. To put it mildly, these young people start their adult lives being a drag on the economy, costing taxpayers billions of dollars annually.
For decades, policymakers and educators devoted their time to raising high school graduation rates through prevention efforts and raising various achievement standards for teachers and students.

In recent years, however, they also began to focus on dropout recovery, realizing they must re-engage and re-enroll young people for the benefit of everyone. It is part of a systemic approach that is succeeding everywhere it is established. It involves many agencies in all sectors of society and all levels of government.
Melanie Marquez Parra, public information officer for Florida’s Pinellas County schools, wrote in an email message that its dropout prevention office “continually identifies students who have left the school system without a diploma and attempts to contact their parent/guardian to see how the student can be reconnected with their education. Students and/or parents call our office and our counselors offer options. The school transition specialist also works with partners from juvenile residential facilities and other community agencies to re-engage students with their educational career. The focus has to be on building relationships. A student with a rapport with at least one person at their school is more likely to stay engaged and graduate.”
In several school districts nationwide, “early college” programs give dropouts the additional advantage of taking community college courses free of charge while completing their high school diplomas. Some students earn credits for a certificate, license or associate’s degree.
One major key to success with dropouts is having accurate information about their backgrounds and ambitions. The reasons for dropping out are as varied as the young people themselves. Many do not have parents and other relatives to support them. Some have their own children to support. Others drop out because of mental illness, some are bored by routine classroom work and some have problems resulting from having been incarcerated.

More often than not, out-of-school youth want to return to school because they know that formal education is more vital than ever to enter the job market. The problem for many is that they do not know how to start the process to re-enter school.
Fortunately, more policymakers everywhere are acknowledging the long-term practical value of finding dropouts, even if that means knocking on doors to bring them back to campus.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times. Email bmaxwellsptimes.com.