Erasing the Future - This is the first part in an ongoing series addressing our city's public schools

Talk about a Pandora's Box.

Lift the lid on the issue of public education in Seattle these days - ditto the state, ditto the nation - and immediately you're confronted with a tangled-up network of compounding problems, each symptom connected to and impacting on the one that came before it, until at last you begin questioning the relative health of our society itself.

We hear the prevailing anecdotes that, fairly or not, taint the bushel: metal detectors overarching high-school hallways; students playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with U.S. geography; achievement gaps; functional illiteracy; gangs and drugs; all the way to the flatline terror informing director Gus Van Sant's recent, Columbine-inspired film "Elephant" - whose very title belies the idea that our alarm somehow equals awareness.

Writer Walter Benjamin famously warned that the "state of emergency" in modern society is not the exception but the rule. Schools, in the end, may be the ultimate barometer of our viability as a culture. As public schools reflect, so they reinforce and re-create and retain our economic structures, our cultural values, our systems of class and styles of management. Our democracy.

We can't afford to drop out of democracy, so ask yourself this question: What about dropping out of school? What would be an acceptable dropout rate in Seattle?

One in 100? Not even close to reality.

One in 10?

One in five?

Try one in four. You, you, you, gone. You, you, you, gone.

Hear the alarm bells?

Framing the problem

The lament in Seattle over "our schools" is constant and ubiquitous, almost folkloric by now. Teachers are overworked and underfunded; administrators are deemed out of touch; politicians left and right seek stopgap solutions, clamoring about villages, vouchers, children left behind, children "at-risk."

And the students themselves? Sometimes they appear pawns in a game of ideological chess, markers shoved and shuffled about, counted and tested and assessed and tested again.

With the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which holds schools accountable for "Adequate Yearly Progress" on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, the mania for testing has reached a fever pitch. Funding largely depends on it - which ipso facto can create yet another vicious cycle.

Yet even here, with so much at stake, the prognosis is poor. Despite district-wide gains across the board in the 2004 WASL, only 28 percent of 10th-graders tested showed proficiency in science. Only 38 percent of that same group were deemed proficient in math. And in the areas of reading and writing, just over half the students hit the mark.

It is a testament to the state of our schools right now that these numbers are heralded as a sign of progress.

Dr. Stephanie Bravmann, a veteran educator currently working as a researcher with the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, said she believes the current troubles facing the Seattle School District are rooted in an age-old crisis.

"We've never been able to get our acts together in this country about what it is we want our schools to do," Bravmann said. Whether we want public schools to create better citizens, to give vocational training, or to drill students in the so-called "Three Rs" - reading, writing and arithmetic - this prickly question, Bravmann argues, points to a systemic crisis that has confronted educators from the beginning.

Yet amid such dramatic symptoms and diagnoses, the most shocking and revealing fact of all - the "elephant" in the hallway - has remained hidden. Worse, ignored.

Some have claimed the dropout rate in the Seattle School District is closer to 30 percent. Like most controversial and highly politicized statistics, it depends on who you ask.

For reasons both understandable and telling, the state until very recently was in the habit, consciously or not, of deflating its dropout numbers by excluding whole categories of missing students.

Still, even the official numbers don't get much play. "Unfortunately, graduation rates are not widely publicized, and when they are found, they are often unreliable," said Jay Greene, who recently conducted research on graduation rates in Washington state for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

The study, commissioned by the Gates Foundation, took the shine off the district's former calculations by counting as dropouts more than just those students who filled out the official paperwork.

Adjusting for student relocation and other factors, the institute's study simply weighed the number of students who entered a given class - called a student "cohort" - against those who graduated.

According to Greene, having accurate information about graduation rates "helps us understand the nature and magnitude of the difficulties we face, much as test score results do."

Doubtless. And yet, despite the disparities among competing computations of dropout rates, and regardless of the numbers upon which we choose to rely, there are few people - if any - who would contend we are not in very serious trouble when it comes to keeping students in public schools.

The United States Department of Education has set a national goal of graduating 85 percent of students. However you crunch it, we are a long, long way from achieving such success. We are failing.

Doing the math

Opening Pandora's Box to unpack the specific numbers behind the overall dropout rate, we find the data complicated by a taboo on the one hand and a time bomb on the other: namely, class and race.

Graduation rates are lowest among African-American and Native American students - around 50 percent. Latino students, the fastest-growing youth population in the state, fare about the same.

Compare this to a 70 percent completion rate for white students and 77 percent for Asian-American students, and the trends appear no less disturbing for being altogether familiar.

Sakara Remmu, executive education chair for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the high dropout rate among African American students must be viewed in light of a long and entrenched history of disproportionality in Seattle schools.

"There's a historic trend of children of color being the stepchild of the Seattle public school district," Remmu said. The issue, she added, needs to be contextualized within a framework of "segregated education." She said the impact of this "long tradition," whether occurring in policy or in practice, stretches through generations of students of color, and that the parents of students currently enrolled have their own stories of experiencing racial division in Seattle schools.

"Segregation has never stopped," Remmu said, adding that a number of interrelated factors serve to perpetuate such inequality, "from human resources to disciplining children to everything in-between."

The issue of disproportionality, Remmu said, is huge when looking at the pressures confronting students of color: disproportionality in funding, in application of district policies (or the lack thereof), in economic status, as well as what she calls "cultural competency," or the way students and their communities are perceived and treated by teachers and administrators.

Data collected from various other government studies regarding dropout rates give weight to Remmu's assessment. A 2000 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, breaking down the trend in more detail, reported that young adults living in families with incomes in the lowest 20 percent of all family incomes were six times as likely as their peers in the top 20 percent of family income distribution to drop out of high school.

A city of Seattle's Human Services Department report on youth covering the years between 1999 and 2004 found that, in any given year, the risk of falling into poverty is three times higher for high-school dropouts. And in Seattle, 40 percent of unemployed persons lack a high-school diploma.

Nationwide, 75 percent of the prison population are dropouts. It costs $50,000 a year in Seattle to keep a youth in juvenile detention. Black males make up 34 percent of detention admissions, though they constitute only 7 percent of the total youth population.

From the same report: Only 19 percent of teenaged mothers complete high school.

And so on. Circles within circles.

The data on high-school dropouts reads like a circuit board; the connections are clear. A combination of factors may lead to the act of dropping out - alienation, academic falling behind, pregnancy, drugs, poverty - but the act itself is a single cause that explodes into a menacing proliferation of potential or probable effects, none of them very encouraging.

An old joke used to go: You gotta really work to flunk high school.

That joke isn't funny anymore.

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 she 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 Ballard High School principal Phil Brockman. Brockman has a uniquely multi-faceted resumé 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."

School is society

"When you look at where we need to be for the class of 2008," Ballard teacher Phil Brockman said, "we're pretty far off. When you break that down by different racial groups ... that's not so good."

It's in the disparity among different subsets of Seattle's student population - whether in terms of race, geography, culture or economic status, or all three, aka class with a capital 'C' - that one gets the clearest indication of how schools work to mirror as well as recreate and entrench the structures of society at large.

Virtually since society has been society, the question of education has been deemed central to civilization's survival, to its support and perpetuation of the status quo. Plato's "Republic" was, in essence, a manual for proper education. Philosophers, politicians, writers, activists, demagogues, utopianists - all have concerned themselves through the ages with the best means of bringing up "good citizens."

Especially since the Industrial Revolution, with the advent of Germanic, systematized education, the structure and content of schools has been one of the primary points of contention - if not the principal element - in the ongoing struggle over political systems.

Bravmann considers this latter historic development - the social evolution from home or church schooling to outside-the-home, routinized, secular, public education - a "critical shift," and one that still reverberates through any dialogue about public education. "School went from being an agreement to a contract," she said.

Looked at this way, the crisis not only in Seattle schools but in the nation in general is emblematic of our social ills. Beyond what we say we value - beyond our latest jeremiad over broken-down education and our endless gambits for reformation - we see in the current school system a diagnosis of what we really, truly value as a society.

Education does not exist in a vacuum. It is inextricably embedded in our cultural and social and economic structures. That this is a good or bad things is utterly moot. It just is, and perhaps could be no other way. To fix school is, in a sense, to fix society - and visa versa.

Bravmann said it is crucial to any conversation about revamping schools that we understand the historic, social and political context within which school systems - and, perhaps more important, the particular problems of school systems - arise and exist. The dilemma of student drop outs does not reside outside the big picture, and may in fact be central to it.

"As a society, we've never worked out what place schools have in the larger picture," she said, adding that the question that persists is whether teachers should be instillers of morality, babysitters, vocational instructors, upholders of the Western canon, developers of better citizens or robots of the rote. All of the above? None of the above? A little of each? More one than the other?

There is nothing new in the idea that schools are, as Bravmann said, "a reflection of middle-class society." Things become a bit more complicated, however, when this idea loses its elasticity. "The presumption is that's how it ought to be," Bravmann added.

Such a presumption, which works to reify the way our schools are set up, making them seem inevitable, becomes problematic. A whole set of social values, some of them almost untenably contradictory, becomes part of the baggage of education.

"We have got a national problem," Bravmann said, "which is the conflict between two supposedly crucial principles in this society: rugged individualism versus E pluribus Unum, our democratic ideal of the collective good."

Bravmann jokes that such a notion sounds "vaguely Marxian," and therefore antithetical to everything we stand for as Americans. Yet it is hardly a political bias. It's an economic and social truth.

"School is not divorced from the social problems we have," Bravmann said. "Until we straighten out our economic structures, in one way the schools aren't going to be able to do much of anything."

She adds that the idea that education can overcome such social factors is "foolish."

Doing the right thing

"Education isn't a bag of tricks," Bravmann said, adding that when it comes to setting forth solutions for curing education's ills - including an unacceptably high dropout rate - we too often look for "quick fixes."

What we need to be wary of, Bravmann said, is the "bandwagon" aspect of reformation. There tends to be a cycle of fad solutions that regularly come around the bend, and everyone jumps on board until that particular cure fails to prove itself a panacea, after which another fancy theory or policy comes along to supplant it. And too often what comes around is the same-old with a brand-new shine.

Any solution to the dropout rate, Bravmann insisted, needs to begin with a heightened sense of engagement with the whole student, in terms of that student's individuality regarding cultural upbringing, economic status, academic ability and family situation.

"We do very, very poorly with nuance in education," she said, "but people are nuanced. Until we start looking at students that way, we aren't going to get very far."

For Remmu, acknowledging the individuality of students and re-engaging them in education means battling the issue of disproportionality on every front - from the way teachers treat students, to the creation and enacting of policy, to breaking down barriers between the district and communities of color, to the dispersal of funding.

"There is always the issue of equity of funding," she said. "That is one of the biggest problems. Money is not given equitably. Money is not given where the need arises most."

"Our funding is so unequal," Bravmann said, adding that "while money doesn't solve problems, it sure doesn't hurt."

Beyond the issue of funding, both Remmu and Bravmann appear to agree on the need to begin working toward a more holistic, intimate approach to education - an approach that centers on the student yet envelops him or her within a system of support that includes not only the school and the district, but the family and the community at large, too. If it takes a village, then it takes a village.

"The district is responsible for the climate they create for our students and our families," Remmu said, adding that "every link in the chain matters."

"Schools are being asked to teach kids who come from such untenable circumstances," Bravmann said. Nevertheless, she added, until the district confronts the seemingly infinite variety of factors and difficulties faced by each student, the slippery slope to dropping out will remain a huge temptation for too many kids.

What educators must say to themselves, Bravmann argued, is this: "Each kid will be know and valued as an individual. If that doesn't happen, we're not going to keep them in school."

"The immediate things that can be done to offset the dropout rate for children of color is just for people to take an interest in a child," Remmu said, adding that she herself dropped out of high school when she was just 15.

"It was the biggest mistake I made in my life," she said, adding that at the time she felt as though she were facing a seemingly insurmountable array of difficulties, including a sense at school that "nobody was taking an interest in me."

It didn't take long, she said, to see that, far from solving her problems, dropping out of school likely was going to ruin her life. "Going back to school was the best thing that I ever did," Remmu said. "What I came to realize not long after I dropped out was that I need to cherish my education."

It is this lesson, she added, that she hopes to instill in any students considering the quick fix of leaving school. "Education will change your life," Remmu said. "Hold on to that like you hold on to your breath."

The second part of this series will appear next week.[[In-content Ad]]