The dropout crisis

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 Ballard High School principal Phil 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.

Sakara Remmu, executive education director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 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 dis-comfort, 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 disassocia-tion 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," said veteran educator Dr. Stephanie Bravmann, speaking 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 High's 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 dropouts 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."

Rick Levin is editor of Magnolia News. His series on our public schools will conclude here next week.[[In-content Ad]]