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'For Sake of All': Health affects school dropout rate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2013 - Michael Jordan probably had no idea of the trouble he was causing 7th graders who couldn’t afford the athlete’s overpriced sneakers.

"Not wearing Jordans was when my problems really started," said Malik Avery, now 18. "In fact, I didn’t wear any designer outfits because I couldn’t afford them. So I got picked on a lot.”

At the time, Avery was a student in the Riverview Gardens School District. Not fitting in made him a persistent target of bullies, and he says he became suicidal. "I tried to defend myself, but that only made things worse, both physically and emotionally. It became a major strain. I never had peace. So I dropped out.”

The relationship between mental health and the dropout rate among area African-American students is one topic explored in the second of a series of briefs from a project called "For the Sake of All,” funded by a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health.

The initial brief showed how poverty and low levels of education affected health. The latest report focuses on how the health of youngsters affects the area’s dropout rate. The rate imposes a hidden cost on society, according to the brief’s author, William F. Tate, chair of the Department of Education at Washington University. As examples, he says 1,000 fewer African-American dropouts in the St. Louis area would:

• Increase the regional gross product by $15 million a year.

• Allow the diploma holders to spend up to $21 million more on homes.

• Add an extra $1.1 million in state and local tax revenue each year.

Such positive outcomes would require sustained public and private investments in counseling and mental health and other services for youths, the brief says.

Avery is an example of how even modest investments can make a differences in the lives of youngsters. He now has a high school diploma, but he's undecided at the moment on a path to more education, a job and doing his part to boost the region’s economy.

He says his fate began to change after he quit the Riverview district, moved in with a relative in St. Louis and became part of the city school system’s high school graduation initiative. There he found a lifeline of hope through the district’s dropout recruiter, Charlie E. Bean, who is counseling 350 kids who are at high risk of dropping out.

"Malik was suicidal a couple of times,” Bean recalls. "It was mentally and emotionally exhaustive for him because he was bullied. This is a mental health issue that lots of kids face. They aren’t strong enough to deal with that, along with the stress of family and the stress of grades. They give up because they are used to people giving up on them."

Bean estimates that he has reached roughly 3,000 students through the district’s initiative, connecting with wayward youngsters through social media and word of mouth.

"I give them what they have been dying for. I give them hope. When they have that, a lot of the negative things go away. They are able to move on with their lives. Malik was a kid in the corner, in a shell, when I met him. He has come out of that shell, partly because of  the work done here.”

Tate’s brief also calls attention to other health and mental health initiatives that are making a difference in the lives of children in city and county schools. One challenge, he reports, is that many such programs nationwide are too uncoordinated to be as effective as they could be.

One example of a coordinated school program in St. Louis, he says, is the school-based health clinic at Roosevelt High School, set up through a grant from the Boeing Co. to Mercy Children's Hospital St. Louis and St. Louis Public Schools. Another more far-reaching program is the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, which provides mental health and substance abuse services for youths. Tate says the fund is committed to developing an integrated service system as an alternative to sending young people to emergency rooms to cope with mental health problems.

Like the first brief, this one is part of the work of a team of researchers from Washington University and Saint Louis University. The briefs will culminate with a report and a conference next year on the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Tate says the region can’t afford to ignore the challenge posed by high numbers of dropouts. He said more than 2,000 black students in the 9th through 12th grades in St. Louis and St. Louis County schools were listed as dropouts last year.

"Young people’s health influences their ability to learn and to complete school,” he says in the brief. “This is because health and education are closely related. This relationship is of particular concern of African Americans in the St. Louis region.”

Mental health problems are one of three health conditions that might lead a kid to quit high school, Tate says. The data from the Missouri Department of Mental Health show that suicidal tendencies, like those expressed by Avery, are not uncommon. According to Tate’s brief, at least 12 percent of 6th through 12th graders in St. Louis and St. Louis County schools considered suicide last year.

"A large majority of children with mental health challenges are not identified or treated,” Tate writes. "Over time, mental health problems increase the risk of school dropout.” He also points to research showing that stigma associated with adolescent mental health problems can deter some parents from seeking help for these children.

Another school dropout challenge, the brief says, involves physical health problems, such as asthma. Tate cites data showing that asthma-related emergency room visits are seven times higher for African-American teens than for white youths in the St. Louis region.

A third challenge, the brief says, is risky behavior. Tate writes that African-American students who perform poorly in school are more likely to abuse drugs, engage in sexual activity and other potentially harmful activities. "And these new health risks lead to a higher dropout risk," according to Tate.

Now uplifted through city school services, Avery finds no pressure to own a pair Jordans, and he has no desire to own them in any case.

"I wanted something more than that, something beyond hanging out in that environment,” he says. "I am happy that I found the city school program. Without it, I never would have gotten my high school diploma. I guess you can say this has made me stronger. If this hadn’t happened, I probably would be dead."

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Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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