Re-enrolling dropouts should top education agenda

The Fresno Bee

Every 26 seconds another student drops out of school in America.

The California Blueprint for Great Schools 2.0 never mentions dropout recovery in its policies or principles. It should.

Research shows that students drop out of high school because they are overwhelmed by toxic environments such as homelessness, violence, abuse or neglect, and family illness.

Dropouts are significantly more likely than graduates to commit or be subject to violent crimes, to end up in prison or to stay on public assistance. California must take dropout recovery seriously in the development of our education agenda for the sake of students, their communities and the economy.

Ben “Chubs 217” Barnes is a dropout who re-enrolled in high school and graduated from one of California’s few schools whose mission is to recover dropouts and help them earn diplomas and job skills.

Ben left his home in Springfield, Ill., at 17 to get away from his stepfather and violence in his neighborhood. He ended up couch surfing in Orange County and attended Villa Park High School. He connected with taggers in Anaheim and dropped out of school.

Discouraged and hungry, he began planning a return to Springfield. Instead of returning, his brother told him about the School for Integrated Academics and Technologies, SIATech.

SIATech is one of a handful of public charter schools that provide dropouts with a chance to earn a high school diploma and job skills. Ben enrolled and learned computer-assisted graphics design skills.

Now a graduate, Ben’s ability to combine hip-hop sensibilities with social justice themes has resulted in mural contracts with Nike, Lollapolooza and South-by-Southwest. The Ritz Carlton Hotel commissioned him to paint a mural for Martin Luther King Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles, and he recently completed a major mural for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Ben has become a successful student at Los Angeles Community College.

Ben’s story is too rare because we have not had the will to reach out and re-engage dropouts. We fail to acknowledge that more than 100,000 students leave California schools every year without a diploma. We fail to accurately count those students and have no comprehensive state program for their re-engagement.

Policymakers point to the increasing graduation rate as evidence that things are getting better. But huge gaps remain for children of poverty and for Latino and African American students.

Schools do not get special funding for dropout recovery. They don’t get waivers recognizing dropouts have a higher likelihood of dropping out again. They don’t receive special dispensation for serving students who re-enroll far below grade level.

It’s no wonder that there are so few schools bringing back dropouts. But the value of dropout recovery is great. A year in high school costs the state less than a fifth of a year in prison. Dropouts who earn diplomas have greater success with their families, greater political and community involvement and greater incomes.

The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that if only half of the dropouts from a single year were to earn diplomas, the economic benefits to California would include an additional $1.4 billion in earnings and $167 million in state and local tax revenues.

What can policymakers do to put dropout recovery at the top of the education agenda? Ensure that the Department of Education collects and manages accurate data. Assess alternative schools with measures relevant to the circumstances of the students who re-enroll. Encourage multiple agency collaborations to overcome the effects of poverty and the environments that overwhelm students.

We have a choice: allow dropouts to fail, and incur all the social costs that come with that, or help students such as Ben Barnes re-engage. Their success will help strengthen California.

Delaine Eastin, former state superintendent of public instruction, is a member of the board of directors for SIATech, a public charter school serving former dropouts.