Turn On, Tune In, Stay In: Lowering The Dropout Rate

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On a late April day a quarter-century ago, the National Committee on Excellence in Education delivered to President Ronald Reagan a blistering report entitled A Nation At Risk, which cited “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” and shocked both the education secretary who had sponsored it and the president, who was almost tempted to paper over its findings. Instead, the report struck a chord with the public and inspired decades of data-driven, standards-based education “reform.”

A turn of the millennium and four presidents later, the “mediocrity” denounced in 1983 seems aspirational today: the nationwide 75 percent high-school graduation rate in ’83 outstrips the city’s current reported average of 60 percent. Rates plummet to 45 percent and below among African-American and Hispanic boys. A recent national analysis ranks New York’s graduation rate the 43rd-lowest among the nation’s 50 major cities – ahead of Detroit and Cleveland, but well behind San Francisco, Chicago and long-troubled Washington, D.C.

With half of the city’s young men of color not finishing high school, city leaders such as Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, top staffers in the Department of Education, and youth advocates agree that the city must address the dropout crisis – but not on how best to approach the problem.

Faced with the dire statistics, Cary Goodman, Ph.D., executive director of the New York City-based nonprofit Directions for Our Youth – whose organization led a “Dropout Summit” this winter for the second year in a row – says the DOE needs to mount an aggressive public awareness campaign and install one person in charge of dropout prevention for the city. Presently more than 70,000 current high school students have fallen behind and are potential dropouts, according to schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Last year alone, more than 10,000 teenagers dropped out of high school, while 40,000 graduated. Another 17,000 didn’t earn their diploma on time and are still enrolled – overage, undercredited, and at risk.

A DOE program called “multiple pathways to graduation” – created in part in response to legal pressures, according to Walcott – is the department’s main strategy to repair these losses. The program offers a menu of choices to retain disaffected students, from transfer schools and Young Adult Boro Centers to non-traditional high schools and GED programs. But the boro centers and transfer schools only enroll a fraction of those at risk.

Walcott, whose portfolio as deputy mayor includes education, concurs: “Multiple pathways only serve a small part of the population. The challenge is how we increase them.” Multiple Pathways Director JoEllen Lynch adds, “In terms of scale, is it enough? Probably not. No one would say this work is done by any means.”

Lynch says that efforts are underway to expand transfer school options and the capacity of existing programs; in June, a mayoral task force will report on Career and Technical Education initiatives designed in part to retain at-risk students. But advocates like Goodman argue that the DOE could better address the challenge if the overall strategy were reconfigured as a public welfare issue, with one person installed as head of the city’s anti-dropout effort.

DOE spokeswoman Debra Wexler says Chancellor Klein in effect already is that person. “The DOE has an integrated, collaborative approach under the vision and oversight of the chancellor. From the very top level, everybody here is thinking about this all the time,” Wexler said. (For an in-depth look at the city’s public high school graduation rates, and DOE efforts to improve them, see City Limits Investigates, Winter 2008, Exit Strategy.)

Sandra Lerner, an administrator at Lehman College who served on the Board of Education before it became the DOE, said increasing the graduation rate is the responsibility of Klein’s boss, as well. “As a citywide effort, the mayor is in charge of education – it’s essentially a city agency,” said Lerner, who also spoke at Dropout Summit II. “So one would hope that the mayor’s focus is on increasing the graduation rate.”

The administration says key players in the effort also are community-based organizations and longtime service providers whose programs target teens. Strong community partners have bolstered the highest performing Young Adult Boro Centers in years past, says Lynch.

“Community partners are the cornerstone of these efforts,” she says, citing the partnerships that underpin all multiple-strategies schools and programs, as well as all of the city’s new small schools. Some are concerned that this approach shifts responsibility from the DOE to community groups.

At the same time, however, many community groups have suffered, as funding resources have been rechanneled. Historically, about $20 million per year in state funds went to dropout prevention, until Bloomberg-era reforms reorganized the funding to embrace programs for elementary, middle and high school students. The change signaled the administration’s focus on investing in early education. “The ultimate dropout prevention program is making sure that students are prepared for the rigors of high school,” says Walcott.

Goodman disagrees, saying “the budget is the political expression of what’s going on in the city.” Those who work with teens saw their funding streams run dry, and face ongoing challenges in finding new sources to restore money to their programs.

Placing the dropout challenge front and center on the city’s communications agenda is critical, says Goodman. Bloomberg’s anti-smoking and anti-obesity efforts, which were surrounded by media campaigns, could be models for a similar campaign to greatly increase public awareness of the risks of dropping out of high school, he says. “We need to make it clear to kids, you’ll make more money if you graduate, you’ll have a better life – and you’ll have more of a chance of going to jail, you’ll be sicker, you’ll be poorer, if you don’t.”

Brooklyn College education professor David Bloomfield says he can envision benefits to an awareness campaign. City leaders “clearly have made a big deal of it internally, in terms of their emphasis on the graduation rate – but they have not made as much of an issue as a community matter. They haven’t said that parents, for example, have a special obligation to see that their children graduate.

“And they need to reach the students themselves – at 16, 17, and 18, they probably have more to do than their parents with getting out of bed in the morning and actually staying all day at school,” Bloomfield said.

Goodman seeks a major focusing of public attention on the issue. “We have to harness the strength of the city and build the constituency for a public education campaign. There has to be some way to create a culture around this issue,” he says. His group’s two Dropout Summits took steps to forge such a culture, by creating a Graduation Promise Act at the 2007 summit, which seeks $2.4 billion in federal dropout prevention funding and has the support of many on the City Council. U.S. Reps. Charles Rangel and Yvette Clark also are working to arrange a Congressional field hearing in New York before the November election. And the summits have sparked plans for 100 similar gatherings in cities and states nationwide, with the support of Colin and Alma Powell’s nonprofit America’s Promise.

“We’d love a colleague at the DOE, a Chief Dropout Officer,” says Goodman. “The real problem is getting consensus, getting the city and the Department aligned. We need a five-year plan on the dropout rate, just like the smoking reduction plan was a five-year plan.”

In addition, Goodman says the city’s academic institutions and think tanks should invest in ongoing, critical, institutional dropout-prevention research. David R. Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York, agrees.

“Lowering the dropout rate is an enormous task that deserves significant resources and personnel, specifically dedicated to addressing this issue, which is by far, one of the most important issues facing this city,” Jones said. “Left undone, it will create a generation of unemployed and underemployed city residents.”

– Helen Zelon