Monday, February 11, 2008

St. Louis Dropout Summit: more than words

“Dropout” has a terrible connotation. Describing someone, it has an innuendo of “You failed. You gave up.” This weekend, I attended the Mayor’s Dropout Summit at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy in St. Louis, and for the first time I started thinking of that word “dropout” as being about the failures of the school system and the adults and authority figures who are supposed to build and maintain the network of support that will keep students engaged, so to speak. One young gentleman wanted to make a distinction that “engaged” meant interested and involved, not betrothed.

The Career Center is a High School with a career focus, and the students we spoke to seemed pleased to have choices and said their friends and cousins were clamoring to get in after hearing all the pathways it offers—but the waiting list is long.

The Summit itself was more than I thought it would be. At first, I was skeptical that it would be a smattering of adults who think they have the answers and want other adults to know they have the answers. As the speakers came up to the podium, though, students spoke, former dropouts spoke, and one student spontaneously recited a poem that I have posted at the bottom.

There were some powerful thoughts, but what impressed me was that everyone there was feeling the same urgency I was, and was not content to just reiterate the problem. As we broke out into focus groups, I joined one on data systems…I know, sounds boring, right? Well, it was fairly fascinating: the group’s directive was to provide a framework for generating good information, sharing it and mapping results. But where to start? The last Census was in 2000, and data from that is mostly irrelevant 8 years later. We had plenty of questions, like how do we define a “disengaged student” so we’re all talking about the same population? How do we track students between agencies: from school to a juvenile detention center to foster care? How do we pinpoint where students "drop" through the cracks?

It became pretty clear that the info we have available is very unreliable. Depending on your source, somewhere between 19,000 and 23,000 students attend St. Louis Public schools. That’s a pretty large margin of error, and if we are tracking the success of a certain program, how do we know that change has happened, and it’s not just that our numbers were faulty on the front end?

Possibly even more important than that is having longitudinal data—not just on initiatives over time, but on individual students over time. When students drop out, we lost them. We have no idea where they go and what they do. Did they move? Did they get a GED and go to community college? Did they start working? Were they arrested? Did that student seek out help from the agency recommended? How do we share confidential information? How do we map where our dropouts live—many are homeless—and how do we mete out the countless factors that go into one student dropping out of high school?

The questions are daunting, and how to gather it and maintain the privacy of students is a hefty job. But we know that for students to stay engaged we have to plumb the foundation and close the gaps where students fall through. I’m going to keep going back, even though I don’t have a lot of expertise to offer, because I don’t want to be part of the problem of adults recognizing, explaining, bemoaning the rate of kids dropping out of schools, only to turn around and disengage themselves in any concentrated effort to make a difference.

Our Greatest Fear

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other

people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine,
we unconsciously give other people
permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

—Marianne Williamson

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