Reclaiming the Future for Students at Risk: New Approaches to Dropout Prevention

Article excerpt

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To add to the busy schedules of high school principals and assistant superintendents, they go door-to-door to speak with students--and their parents--in the Clark County (Nev.) School District. These students have dropped out of high school, and administrators are encouraging them to return and pursue a diploma.

The Clark County program, known as Reclaim Your Future, has targeted dropouts for the past two years, while the district has intensified efforts to keep current students from dropping out.

The Nevada district is not alone. From the largely rural enclave of Seaford, Del. to the small town of Columbus, Miss., superintendents and their schools are implementing comprehensive and aggressive programs to retain students in danger of dropping out and to recover others who have already left high school without a diploma.

Hoping to leave a trail of best practices, organizations and companies also have begun to support and fund the most promising district and community programs nationwide. America's Promise Alliance, a Washington-based advocacy group with the support of former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, established Grad Nation Communities almost three years ago to highlight, support, and connect nearly 60 districts nationwide working with communities to keep students in schools.

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Last year, AT&T launched its Aspire initiative, which provides $250 million over five years to districts and local nonprofit organizations dedicated to dropout prevention. Last August, Aspire distributed the first $10 million to 47 recipients, from the Vallejo (Calif.) Unified School District and the Boston (Mass.) Public Schools to the Urban League of Greater Hartford, Conn. and the Boys and Girls Club of Green Bay, Wis. "Raising graduation rates and keeping kids in school who would otherwise drop out is our laser focus," says Beth Shiroshi, AT&T's vice president of sustainability and philanthropy.

It's high time for new dropout prevention programs, say early adopters and other advocates. The issue has always been one of those things in the back of superintendents' minds," observes Martha Liddell, superintendent of the Columbus (Miss.) Municipal School District.

So Liddell has launched an ambitious school- and community-based program as an antidote to the district's rising dropout rate. "What's been missing at the superintendent's level is that sense of urgency," Liddell explains.

Organizations focused on the dropout problem in American schools, such as America's Promise and the National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) at Clemson University in South Carolina, are all about urgency, so much so that the website of the former provides a running tally of new dropouts nationwide. The number ticks up every 26 seconds.

It adds up to 1.2 million high school dropouts a year, says John Gomperts, America's Promise president and CEO. "Twenty five percent of young people are not graduating." For African American and Hispanic students, the number is roughly 65 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The Silent Epidemic

As the alarming dropout numbers have become more apparent, the long-term consequences have drawn increasing concern, as well. According to the NDPC, the number of dropouts annually can cost the United States $200 billion over the lifetime of those individuals, through greater amounts of public assistance they are likely to require to the "school-to-prison pipeline."

And three quarters of the inmates in state prison do not finish high school, reports the Alliance for Excellent Education. "[The dropout problem] is costing our society a lot of money," says Marty Duckenfield, NDPC's public information director. "It's become an issue of 'pay me now' (through dropout prevention programs) or 'pay me later.'"

What's added urgency to this "Silent Epidemic," as America's Promise has termed it, is the changing employment landscape facing today's high school students. …