Confronting the drop-out problem in Seattle schools

As many as one in three students drop out of school in Seattle. It's an astonishing statistic, and immediately begs the question: what's going on? The answers to why students leave school prematurely are, as one administrator points out, "varied and complex," and the problem becomes even more complicated when breaking the numbers down.

For instance, the drop-out rate among both African-American and Native American students is closer to 50 percent, and children from lower income families tend to be at greater risk for not completing high school.

When it comes to keeping kids in school, there appears to be no lack of concern among teachers, administrators, parents, politicians and community leaders. And no lack of theories, solutions and programs aimed at combating this disturbing trend. And yet the numbers remain the same ...

Asking questions

As Stephanie Bravmann points out, the particular way we pose a question presupposes a certain point of view. Could it be we haven't been asking the right questions about why so many kids are prematurely leaving Seattle high schools?

"I think we ask all the wrong questions," Bravmann said, "and if you ask the wrong questions, chances are you're going to get answers that aren't helpful."

Bravmann retired in 2001 as a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Seattle University, where a number of teachers currently in the Seattle School District passed through her classes; she has also been a teacher (pre-kindergarten through doctoral students) as well as an elementary- and high-school administrator and a director of both a regional education cooperative and an education nonprofit, most of her work being in the Seattle area.

In her ongoing work with teachers, Bravmann is a tireless advocate for recognizing the unique capacities and needs of each individual student, and believes a reevaluation of the dropout problem should begin there. Her approach to education runs distinctly against the grain of systematization and groupspeak.

"We have got to replace the phrase 'all children' with the phrase 'each child,'" Bravmann said. "We don't come into this world the same. When you say 'all,' you're clumping people. We need to create situations where every kid feels that he or she is known as a person.

"We need to make kids feel that they're part of a community," she added. "The teachers need to feel that they're part of a community as well."

For Bravmann, such a change in thinking would boil down to a crucial maxim for public school teachers interested in reforming the system: "Know each kid." Such an attitude assumes, among other things, that one of the key reasons a given student might be at risk for dropping out is a feeling of alienation - a sense that the student is insignificant or even invisible in the machinery of high-school academics.

"Most often what you hear from people who have dropped out is, 'Nobody there cared about me,'" said the NAACP's Remmu, adding that combating such feelings of isolation can begin inside the schools. "The district is responsible for the climate they create for our students and our families," she said.

Against alienation

Many of the current reforms being enacted by the Seattle district appear to address just this issue of alienation. For example, high schools such as Nathan Hale and Cleveland are experimenting with Small Learning Communities, a Gates Foundation-funded project that seeks to create four or five independent academies within a single high school. The idea is that each smaller high school is geared toward the particular needs of its students, while at the same time creating a deeper interconnectedness between students, teachers and curricula.

"The idea really is to create better relationships with kids, to personalize it," said Phil Brockman, a principal at Ballard High School. Brockman has a uniquely multi-faceted resume within the school district, having served in the past as an assistant principal at Madison Middle School in West Seattle as well as principal for three years at McClure. He's coached wrestling. He was a math teacher at Ballard before becoming principal. And both at West Seattle High School and now at Ballard he's been involved with high-school reform - or, as he calls it, transforming "how we teach."

Brockman, as with most teachers and administrators you talk to about the issue of dropout rates, argues that no single factor can explain why a given student chooses to leave school before graduation.

On the one hand, he said, there is the issue of student alienation, which, in one aspect, is a purely institutional problem. The issue here becomes one of "grabbing students' attention," Brockman said.

"Students need to know that a teacher cares," he said, to which end Brockman also is an advocate of creating smaller learning communities. In creating a more direct and intimate focus on each student, he said, such a system could work toward "making schools a place [students] want to be."

On the other hand, according to Brockman, curriculum needs to be revamped to fit in with this new approach. The idea is that in getting to better know each student's academic level, teachers and administrators can create a means and method of teaching that is more relevant and involving for their pupils.

Brockman cites a number of latter-day programs that have shown promise in this direction, such as Readright, an intensive reading-development program begun by the district that caters to the particular needs of small groups of students.

"Students have gained one grade level in reading for about every 10 hours of instruction," Brockman said, "so it's a proven program. It's really amazing. But it's expensive."

There's the rub. Given the magnitude of the dropout problem - not to mention other not-unrelated factors such as disproportionality and the achievement gap between students and schools - such measures can at times take on a Sisyphean aspect.

Up against the costs of enacting such intensive programs is the fact that, by their very nature, they serve relatively small populations of students. Success in small doses is, granted, still success, and God bless every small shiny miracle signaling uplift.

Still, when you're feeling the dike rumble, it's difficult not to start counting fingers and wondering if it's all enough.

Looking at it, talking about it

The Seattle School Board recently passed new graduation requirements, with minor adjustments being made through 2008, when the change fully kicks in. On top of that, Mayor Greg Nickels announced recently in his budget report an increase in funding for youth programs.

The so called Children's Budget for 2005, funded through levy money plus a slice of the General Fund, aims at pumping stretched city resources into programs of intervention: health, early learning, extracurricular activities.

Obviously, no one's suggesting the problem of dropouts has not been identified and to an extent targeted. "It's on the front burner," Brockman said. "People are looking at it. We're talking about it. We're actually doing more than talking about it."

Though Brockman said he is encouraged by some recent improvements - for instance, some schools, including Ballard High, have shown improvement in WASL scores - he acknowledges that the problem isn't going away any time soon.

"It's a funding issue, it's a state issue, it's a testing issue," he said. "What we need to do at the school level is provide intervention programs to get them to standard so they can graduate. We've got a lot of work to do," he added.

Remmu also acknowledged the long, hard road ahead. "There has to be so much change within the district," she said. "That is going to take a lot of work, and a lot of discomfort, but I believe that now is a prime opportunity."

Reaching out

Linwood Carlson, director of school services for the district, also emphasizes the need to re-engage students through district outreach and intervention. With a background in drug and alcohol counseling within the district, Carlson appears well aware of the myriad forces that negatively impact students' ability to stay in school, much less learn.

Carlson has worked in the areas of truancy intervention, which in Seattle takes the form of identifying problems quickly and vigorously reaching out to families and communities. The Little Rascals image of potbellied, bellicose truancy officers nabbing ragamuffins by the nape of the neck circa the Great Depression doesn't pertain in Seattle, Carlson said. Rather, intervention now occurs with a higher degree of cultural and racial sensitivity.

The aim is to get parents, along with entire communities, involved in their children's education through information and outreach.

"The idea is to intervene early in the process of a student having some challenges or troubles at school," Carlson said, adding that such troubles can stem for an almost dizzying array of factors.

"The issues students face are varied and complex," Carlson said, ranging from the difficulties faced by kids in foster care, to drug and alcohol abuse, to poverty and, lest we forget, academic struggles.

"There are also those students who are falling behind academically," he said. "That's discouraging for them. At some point they may feel 'I'm so far behind, it's not worth it.'"

Such problems can be compounded by the complicated impact of peer pressure against succeeding, a wounded sense of pride as well as a feeling of dislocation or disassociation from the larger community of teachers and students. "If a student doesn't feel connected to a teacher or another staff person at school, or the student is feeling further behind, then they're more at risk for things to go poorly," Carlson said.

Remmu said especially harmful is the negative association many African American students have with academic success and notions of studiousness or bookishness. "One of the challenges for children of color - black boys in particular - is the stigma that 'being cool' is being stupid and being smart is 'being white.'"

She added that such a problem runs deep in African American communities, and that overcoming the cultural taboo against success must begin there. "We as a community need to say we will not allow our children to disgrace education," Remmu said. "You have to take it seriously. We need to start to nurture and regrow education for our children."

Within the schools, she said, teachers also must gain a greater understanding of the communities from which their children derive. "That's where you have to bring in the element of cultural competency," Remmu said, adding that everyone should be working to bridge the distance between the community and the school district. "That is something that is sorely lacking," she said. "It's every link in the chain that matters."

"There has been a history in Seattle of not giving folks the information they need," Bravmann said of schools reaching out to parents and communities - of providing information as well as a sense of entitlement and engagement in their children's education.

"We have to make sure the choices in education are available to everyone," she said, adding that providing such access is made exceedingly difficult when those reaching out do not have a deep understanding of the diverse racial, social and economic compositions of student's lives.

"We have to have a more culturally sensitive system," Bravmann said.

Carlson also pointed to the dizzying array of diversity that describes the circumstances of each student. "In my view there's not one fix for every kid," he said. "There are different solutions to help them. In some cases it's support in a community that can address the issue."

Yet Carlson warns of overextending both resources and manpower in the mission of keeping kids in school:

"One of the things that we have to be careful of is that if we try to do too many things, then we may do none of them well."

Part three of "Erasing the Future" will appear in next week's issue[[In-content Ad]]