"Don't drop out: It's not worth it." For four years, North High School principal Joe Sandoval fought unremittingly to get that message through to students at the largely bilingual Denver school. Until a month ago, he kept coming up empty.
North High entered the school year with the highest dropout rate among the city's 10 public high schools. Out of a student body of 1,800, North dropouts totaled 561 last year - nearly twice the number at any other Denver high school.
"When we looked at the dropout rate at the end of last year, it was horrendous," says Mr. Sandoval. The superintendent of Denver schools then gave Sandoval a prompt and clear message: "Do something about it." It could be that the pressure helped unleash Sandoval's creative streak. In short order he came up with a plan that's getting notice from educators nationwide, and already has helped slow North's dropout rate. Instead of a diploma, Sandoval decided he'd hand students a "dropout certificate." But to make that piece of paper official, students first must sign a disclaimer, which states, "I realize that I will not have the necessary skills to survive in the 21st century." Although the program began only a month ago, already four would-be North dropouts chose to stay in school after coming face-to-face with the disclaimer. "When the kids come into the office and see that, they don't want it," Sandoval says. "It's tangible. It's something they have in their hands in black and white. That works." The disclaimer, in a two-column list, enumerates the skills a student will lack, including reading, writing, problem-solving, leadership, and responsibility. It also includes a chart comparing the $585 average monthly wage of a dropout with the $1,077 monthly wage the average high school graduate earns. The certificates program is really one component of a broad, aggressive plan to keep North's students from leaving. Individual counseling, a heavy emphasis on attendance, and even student buttons bearing the "Don't Drop Out" message are other parts of the effort, Sandoval says. …