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Take Five: Nine Network leads nationwide anti-dropout effort

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2012 - When staff members of the Nine Network began getting involved in the nationwide American Graduate effort to trim the nation’s high school dropout rate, they initially viewed it as a five-year project.

They quickly realized, though, that making sure that all high school students stay in school until they earn a diploma was not only a goal that would take longer to achieve, it was a task that would require work by much more than just educators.

Now, they are looking at a much longer timeline and a network of not only schools but agencies dealing in social services, housing, health care and all of the other factors that can put roadblocks in the path of students who want to leave 12th grade ready for college or a career.

The task force spearheaded by the Nine Network has been meeting for months as the American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen push by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been using the airwaves and other avenues to make the public aware of the problem and possible solutions.

The station in St. Louis helped kick off the effort last November with a teacher town hall meeting hosted by Gwen Ifill at the KETC studios in Grand Center.

This Saturday, public media nationwide will air a seven-hour program on the dropout problem, with local stations devoting part of every hour to talk about programs in their own communities.

Amy Shaw, the Nine Network’s senior vice president of community engagement, and Shelly Williams, project manager, are heading the effort in St. Louis. Shaw said KETC was chosen as the lead station nationally because of its experience and success with a previous project, Facing the Mortgage Crisis, which also featured a series of stories in the Beacon.

In recent months, Shaw and Williams have convened representatives from a number of school districts, education groups and social service agencies to address the dropout problem and related issues in the St. Louis area. They spoke with the Beacon about that project and the upcoming nationwide broadcast. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Beacon: When did you realize that to combat the dropout problem, you had to involve more than schools?

Shaw: The issues we are taking on are really big, complicated issues. High school dropouts are not just about education. If you leave out all the other social service providers, you are not going to have any meaningful outcome. We are trying to establish a much broader set of relationship that will have an impact over a much longer period of time.

So much of this is about race and poverty. Everyone thinks their kid should graduate from high school; it’s just that some kids live in districts where that goal is more achievable. When you talk about a district like Rockwood, they are very close to the graduation goal already.

This is about people working together to achieve a wider outcome, instead of just trying to talk about how good their individual program is. That is not what is going to change conditions for young people in our community.

Beacon: Were other groups in the area working on the issue in the same way before?

Shaw: There was not really one central group working on the dropout crisis as a region. They have been summits, there have been conversations, but not one group. There are national organizations doing that, but what we wanted to do was provide a catalyzing role to bring a focus to the dropout crisis.

The need was there. You have organizations like Shearwater, for example, doing great work. But we wanted to ask how do we as a region address the dropout crisis?

Beacon: How is a television station equipped to take the lead role in such an effort?

Shaw: We can bring the broader community to this conversation. That is really what has been missing. Because we’re a broadcast entity and serve 3 million people in our region, we have the ability to expand this conversation around the region and explain the impact, not just to those kids and their families but to communities that may not understand how the dropout crisis is affecting people across the region.

When you have a large percentage of urban youth not entering the workforce, not adding to the tax base, and consuming more of the tax base, our ability as a region to grow economically and grow the tax base is really diminished. Not to mention that we don’t have a group of young people who are participating in growing our community. While the region is made up of individual communities and counties, there is a lot of interconnectivity between those communities and counties. This is a regional conversation.

Beacon: Is it hard to get such a wide, diverse group of different agencies to work together to reach this kind of goal?

Shaw: We’re not trying to to take over any big role in the community. This is not any big power play for us. We are seeing this as a critical need and are wanting to coalesce others to work on this and work together. We’re not trying to get rich and famous doing this.

There have been others who tried to do very big things in the community, and it’s important to understand why some things don’t work. A big piece of this is how to get more people around the table and in the front door to say what we should do is track certain things to make the effort more effective. That is what is missing right now: People understanding that this organization over here may have information to make another person’s project work. They can’t be isolated efforts.

That’s a very key piece of this work, and it has been much more difficult even to get started than we ever thought. Clarifying the mission and the issues has been very difficult, but it’s also been very instructive.

Beacon: The problem seems so big. How long will it take to fix it?

Shaw: We backed down from our original goal of having 100 percent of high school students earn diplomas, not because we don’t think it’s reachable but because is a difficult metric to achieve. Now, we much more far-reaching goal, a vision of young people who are engaged, financially sustainable, contributing and employed to their full potential. To do that, they have to graduate from high school and be prepared socially and culturally, but it isn’t just about high school graduate.

High school graduation is great, but what does that really mean? We’re graduating people across the nation who are not really prepared for life.

We are working long-term. These are complex issues that are not solved overnight. For us in St. Louis, we always looked at it as a five-year initiative. We were going to institutionalize the work that we are doing here at the Nine Network. But overtime, it has become clear that even five years is not adequate. So we are going to look at it as a permanent effort. It’s not about dropouts. It’s about all the issues.

We’re not providing services. We’re not competing with service providers. We are really catalyzing agencies to bring it to the awareness of the community.

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.