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Tune in to students before they turn off school and drop out, educators tell legislators

This article fist appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2009 - How's this for a good return on your money in this era of low, low interest rates? Invest $1, save $7 later on.

That's the deal that a Missouri House task force looking into ways to prevent school dropouts heard about during a hearing Friday at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. For every dollar spent on early childhood education, governments can save the seven dollars needed to build prisons.

The Yale-or-jail exchange isn't precise, of course, but a parade of witnesses told the lawmakers the same story over and over: Students who are engaged early, get close attention through their school years and receive swift, strong intervention at the first sign of trouble are more likely to graduate than those whose needs are ignored.

The dropout problem has been called a "silent epidemic," but Peter Downs, president of the elected board for the St. Louis Public Schools, said that term understates the situation. "The word epidemic doesn't really capture it," Downs said. "This is a catastrophe."

The task force on dropout prevention, chaired by Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, was created to combat a trend that is most pronounced in St. Louis and Kansas City but exists in varying degrees throughout the state. Numbers differ, depending on the source, but Nasheed said 12,000 school-age residents in St. Louis are not enrolled.

"If they're not being educated," she said, "eventually they're going to be incarcerated," adding that "they are the ones who are wreaking havoc in our community stealing cars and committing murders."

Witnesses had a range of ideas on how to address the problem, but they were cautioned early that no one should expect extra financial help from a strapped state government. "You're not going to get any more money," said Rep. Cole McNary, R-Chesterfield. "We don't have any money."

A lack of money was one reason cited by Downs for the current problem in the city schools. He said that back in 1997, when the dropout rate in the city schools was 21.1 percent, the district began putting a person in each high school whose sole job was to track down students who had stopped coming to class.

In ensuing years, Downs said, the rate dropped dramatically, to 7.5 percent in 2003. But that year, when the state was in another budget crisis, funds for education were held back, and the anti-dropout program in the city schools was cut. As quickly and steadily as it had declined before, Downs said, the dropout rate began to rise, until it hit the most recent figure of 27.5 percent.

His conclusion: Educators know how to prevent dropouts, but they need the money to make it happen. "It's very labor-intensive," Downs said, "and it's very expensive."

Other witnesses gave similar testimony. The meeting opened with a presentation of arms by members of the ROTC program at Roosevelt High School. After students in the program told of the problems that they see that might drive students out of school -- peer pressure, dysfunctional families, drugs, gangs, bullying, sexual activity -- Master Sgt. Isiah McHellen, head of the program, said parents and families, schools and the community at large have to work together to keep teens in class.

And, he added, the students have to be able to see that the adults in schools are concerned for their welfare. "Students really don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care," McHellen said.

Byron Clemens, first vice president for Local 420, the union that represents St. Louis Public Schools teachers, also cited the need for the dropout problem to be addressed as part of problems in society as a whole.

"Our kids don't exist in isolation," he said. "It's not just school. The school is part of the community; the parents are part of the community. Our students aren't in a bubble."

He said having a state-of-the-art vocational-technical high school in the city would help encourage students to persist until they graduate, and he said developer Paul McKee has expressed interest in making such a school part of his $8.1 billion north St. Louis redevelopment project.

He also urged more programs in non-academic subjects such as music, art, journalism, even chess. "Who knows what little spark will get a student to stay in school?" Clemens said.

Further, he said districts need more alternative schools for problem students and more effective in-school suspension programs, so students who cause difficulties -- often because they are trying to get kicked out -- will have places to go where they can be closely supervised but their learning won't be interrupted.

William Parker, who heads a newly formed office of parent and student engagement for the city schools, said that attention must be paid to students long before they become teenagers because once they are on the verge of leaving it may be too late to change their minds.

"We know that the dropout problem doesn't begin at the high school," he said. "Students can check out at the elementary level."

Former broadcaster Bill Wilkerson, who is now working on the dropout problem for the Mathews-Dickey Boys' and Girls' Club, echoed Parker's concerns, saying that "dropping out is not an event. Dropping out is a process."

Citing a study on dropouts funded by the Gates Foundation, he said Mathews-Dickey is working to get schools, universities, corporations, churches and law enforcement agencies to combat the problem jointly.

He also said the crucial time to concentrate on students is in grades six through nine.

A brief dustup occurred between task force members McNary and Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, when McNary said that Roosevelt, Sumner, Vashon and Beaumont high schools in the city are being avoided by parents because of problems there.

Oxford said she wanted to challenge McNary about the statement, but Nasheed said the two should talk about it privately. Oxford agreed, but McNary got the last word, saying, "If there's no problem with the schools, I don't know why we're here."

Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, asked several witnesses whether they think a longer school day and a longer school year would help address the dropout problem. She noted that young children often spend more time in daycare than they do in school when they get older.

Some said they thought such a plan might work, though they cited the difficulty of learning in urban classrooms that may not be air-conditioned and would be intolerable in hot summer months.

But Downs expressed skepticism about spending more time in class unless other problems are fixed first.

"If what we are doing is wrong," he said, "doing it more is not going to make it right."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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