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Teacher town hall in St. Louis kicks off public media project on dropouts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 7, 2011 - At the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, recent strategy has concentrated on what president and CEO Patricia Harrison calls the three D's: diversity, dialogue and digital.

Now, CPB and its radio and television stations nationwide are focusing those efforts on a fourth D -- high school dropouts -- featuring a series of town halls that will begin Monday night at the Nine Network of Public Media in St. Louis.

Harrison and Bruce Ramer, board chair of the public media corporation, have no illusions that they can reverse the thorny problem that has been going on for decades, costing the American economy billions of dollars in tax revenue lost and services provided.

But with the help of foundations supporting their American Graduate initiative, they hope that local stations will be able to convene parents, teachers, students, business executives, civic leaders and others to come up with answers to meet each community's unique needs.

"Everyone has their role," Harrison told the Beacon, "but we felt that public media -- as an honest broker, with trusted, high-quality content, locally owned and locally operated -- will be able to convene important conversations to determine how a community can help keep young people on the path to success instead of failure."

Noting that 61 public radio and television stations will take part in the project, Ramer added:

"We're investing in national content to help communities address the crisis. It's grassroots as well as grass tops."

The American Graduate project was launched earlier this year in Washington, but the first in a series of teacher town halls will be broadcast nationwide from KETC Monday night, with Gwen Ifill moderating a meeting where more than 100 teachers will take part.

Getting groups like teachers involved to share their ideas is a key to the success of the project, Harrison and Ramer said. Those closest to the classroom where learning is or is not taking place are the ones most likely to have realistic, workable solution, but sometimes they need to have a place where they can all come together to share ideas.

"Hopefully," Ramer said, "community partnerships will come out of this that might not have occurred before that can work not only in one place but in other communities as well."

"There are a lot of wonderful organizations in communities across the country that have been focused on this issue for a long time," Harrison added. "We're helping to facilitate the conversation and the dialogue."

Harrison compared the American Graduate project to an earlier effort by CPB and members stations addressing the nation's mortgage crisis. Stations such as KETC worked closely with other media, including the Beacon, to help people find the information and the strategies they needed to save their homes.

When leaders at CPB and stations nationwide thought about what the next topic for that kind of community engagement should be, the dropout crisis was a natural, Harrison and Ramer said.

With 7,000 American students leaving high school without a diploma every day -- 1.3 million each year -- the cost to the nation is staggering: $100 billion each year, according to the group Civic Enterprises. Incomes are lower, resulting in reduced tax receipts. Unemployment is higher, resulting in increased costs. Rates of incarceration also rise, and the value of ideas and expertise lost to the nation's economy is incalculable.

"The impact is not just on the dropouts and their families," Harrison said. "It's the whole economic stability of the country. Companies say that even if they want to hire somebody, they find that they don't have a qualified workforce."

Education experts have cited many reasons students don't stay in high school until graduation. Some are bored; some get caught up in the criminal justice system or become pregnant. For others, high school classes geared toward helping students get into college are not what they need; they just want to get the basic skills required to get a good job.

Meeting the needs of all types of students is a task that not all schools can achieve.

"The challenge," Harrison said, "is that you do not want to tell a young person that we've decided that based on your grades, you're never going to be able to go to college. That's not the American way."

Ramer hopes the dropout project will last as long as it has to, achieving results that persuade its funders to stay the course.

"We're committed," he said, "and we believe the public media are committed to serving their communities by working on this. We'll see whether schools and stations and communities develop more activities to keep kids engaged. Maybe we'll be able to see and feel an increased level of awareness because that's a major part of the initiative as well as whether the disparate groups are coordinating their efforts."

And Harrison said she has her own vision of what success may look like, at least on a small scale.

"You know those bumper stickers you see on cars that say, 'Our child is an honor student?'" she said.

"I want to see stickers that say, 'We helped a young person stay on the path to get a high school diploma.' If they stay on that path, it's much more likely they will be able to go on to college or be in a better place to get a job."

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