Pitching New HOPE for Dropouts

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Washington—The effort to focus more attention on the national high school dropout problem came to the National Press Club this week, where an alliance of youth advocates and educators released statistics in an attempt to quantify the issue in terms of dollars and sense.

They also used the occasion to introduce and pitch HOPE USA – their proposal for $2 billion in federal spending to provide financial incentives to states and school districts to fund programs aimed at turning dropouts into graduates. (HOPE is an acronym for Hope and Opportunity Pathways through Education.)

The "summit" – part panel discussion and part quasi-news conference – revolved around dropout prevention efforts across the country and the idea that spending extra money to help dropouts now will reduce social and economic costs in the future.

That argument was backed by a new report, Left Behind in  America: The Nation's Dropout Crisis, by Northeastern University economics professor Andrew Sum. The report, which appeared to be a mix of old and new data, said dropouts are more likely to become tax burdens than they are of becoming taxpayers, and typically experience higher incarceration and unemployment rates than their peers with at least high school diplomas.

Among the report's findings:

  • There were approximately 6.17 million dropouts in 2007, or 16 percent of the nation's estimated 38.5 million 16- to-24-year-olds.
  • Dropouts earn $400,000 less from ages 18 through 64 than those who graduated from high school, meaning they pay less in local, state and federal taxes.
  • Among out-of-school youths age 16 to 24 in 2008, only 45.7 percent of high school dropouts were employed, versus 68.1 percent of high school graduates, 78.8 percent of those with some college and 86.7 percent of those with a bachelor's degree or higher.
  • High school dropouts who worked earned an average of $8,358 in 2007, versus $14,601 for high school graduates, $18,283 for graduates with some college, and $24,797 for those with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Problems called systemic

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said the dropout figures demonstrate the need to redesign the public school system. He also criticized school systems for basically closing the door on dropouts.

"It's almost like the system says once you drop out, you're no longer part of this system," Van Roekel said. "That should be changed."

National Urban League president Marc Morial said when No Child Left Behind is reauthorized, it should include a way and resources for national intermediary organizations to do dropout prevention work – something he said will lead to innovation.

"This is a time when we should not be afraid to think big, think comprehensively, and not just think of incremental change," Morial said. Otherwise, he said, a future group of leaders will take up the dropout problem, but then, he said, "We won't be talking about six million [dropouts]. We'll be talking about 16 million."

HOPE USA is a plan backed by the Urban League, the National Educational Association, the Chicago Urban League, the Alternative Schools Network, the Illinois State Council on Re-Enrolling Students Who Dropped Out of School and the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services. It is similar to legislation pending in Illinois called IHOPE, formally known as Illinois Senate Bill 1796.

Under the plan, states and school districts would get 50 percent matching funds to support the creation of programs aimed at re-enrolling students. The re-enrollment programs should be small (80 to 150 students), focus on "real-world" learning, and be accompanied by summer and after-school components as well as year-round employment programs, according its supporters.

Jack Wuest, executive director of the Chicago-based  of the Alternative Schools Network, says the alliance backing HOPE USA hope to get congressional support for a national program.  

The Chicago Factor

Tuesday's event had a heavy Chicago and Illinois contingency – not an insignificant fact given that two Chicagoans, President Barack Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are now in charge of U.S. education policy as many advocates seek to rid the current No Child Left Behind law of what they see as the punitive, underfunded mandates.

"Barack Obama understands this issue," said Wuest,  who recalled working with Obama on truancy and dropout prevention efforts when the president was a community organizer on the Windy City streets.

Two former Chicago dropouts told the group why they left school. Jessie Fuentes, who grew up without a father figure in her life and a mother who struggled with alcohol addiction,  said she was shot at and a friend was killed in a drive-by shooting in the parking lot before school, and how she was threatened with suspension for not going to school that day.

"We were forced to continue our day like nothing happened," Fuentes said. She dropped out but later enrolled in an alternative school,  Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School, where she could get the "one-on-one" attention she needed.

Fredrick Williams, now a student at the Academy of Scholastic Achievement, said fighting and violence in and around school led him to drop out and of how his family's financial instability made him feel "obligated" to sell drugs to earn money.

Jo Anderson Jr. , senior advisor to the U.S. education department, announced that Obama's budget – to be unveiled later this week – includes a "small amount" of funds to address school dropouts. He also encouraged advocates to secure a portion of the $3 billion in school improvement funds under the stimulus act to work on the dropout problem, and to watch for the soon-to-be-released Request For Proposals for the "Race to the Top Funds" – $5 billion in competitive grants from the education department for states to improve educational outcomes for children who live in poverty or who have disabilities.