Knock, Knock: It's Houston's New Truancy Gambit ; A City with One of the Nation's Highest Dropout Rates Sends Volunteers Door-to-Door

Article excerpt

Juan Garcia knows how close he came to being a high-school dropout.

Growing up in public housing, running with a gang, and pulling down poor grades, he had all but given up on his future.

Now, he's a director at a local college, working on his PhD - and all it took was someone who cared, he says.

Mr. Garcia is one of a small army of Houston volunteers trying to be that person who cares, joining Houston's inaugural "Reach Out to Dropouts Day" - a city effort on Saturday in which 100 volunteers knocked on the doors of 800 students who hadn't shown up to school in the first two weeks of classes.

To the city, it was a success: Some parents, unable to convince their kids to return to school, actually asked officials to send volunteers their way; others, having heard that volunteers might come knocking, had already sent their children back to class.

To education experts, too, such programs are good, innovative ideas - but keeping at-risk kids in school takes more than just getting them through the front door, they say.

For its part, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) says it has plenty of programs in place - such as work-study, mentoring, tutoring, and credit-recovery classes - to ease the way for returning students.

While Saturday's method was unorthodox, the issue of dropouts is a serious one. Texas has one of the lowest high-school graduation rates in the country, losing about 30 percent of ninth graders by their senior years.

Other states with high dropout rates have tried everything from revoking students' drivers licenses to hauling parents in for counseling. Now Houston is trying the compassionate approach, with volunteers - including the wife of Mayor Bill White - listening to students' problems, giving advice, and encouraging them to come back.

"For the most part, these are not students who are just staying at home for the fun of it," said Marilyn Balke-Lowry, the project's coordinator, at a recent training session. "They may have family issues, cultural issues, economic reasons for not coming to school. So in addition to persuading them to come back, we also need to be problem solvers."

Indeed, Texas has some the country's most ethnically diverse school districts, with roughly 74,000 students added each year. The highest percentage of those are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, making their education all the more important.

"We've got to keep those kids in school and graduate them," says Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who specializes in school finance. "We can't have a third of our students dropping out of high school; there are no jobs for them anymore. Many will wind up in permanent poverty or in prison, contributing mightily to our social ills."

Mr. Wood is representing some 270 Texas school districts in a lawsuit against the state, claiming that Texas lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional duty to adequately fund all schools and thus properly educate students. …