In her appearance Saturday at Grove Hall's Freedom House, Boston School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson was expecting questions from the audience, many, perhaps, about the troubling high school dropout rate that was reported earlier last week, but it was Ian Powell who made her stop and think.
"What motivates you in what you do?" asked the 21-year-old student of Boston Arts Academy from Dorchester.
"That's a very good question," said Johnson.
Powell explained his idea of motivation was "something that gets you started every day."
"For me," he told the superintendent, "it's like my music."
After taking more time to think, the superintendent began by recalling her childhood in Tennessee, when her grandmother and other African-Americans were overcoming fear to exercise their right to vote.
"I was born at a time when everything was segregated. I actually remember the first time my grandmother voted. I always get emotional about that. She was 60 years old," said Johnson.
"I think my passion about the work," she said, "is to make sure the sacrifices they made were not in vain."
What began with a long silence, ended with a prolonged applause. But, for much of the five hours at a conference on education, the talk was about other kinds of barriers that have kept 40 percent of Boston students from finishing high school in four years. The conference took place three days after release of a report on Boston's persistent dropout problem, done for Boston Public Schools by the Parthenon Group. The report linked the dropout problem to indicators going back at least as early as middle school.
Among the students with a high dropout rate were 9th graders who failed at least one subject, and 8th graders who missed school one day a week. There were also high dropout rates for students - many of them immigrants - who enter the system after 8th grade, and students with learning disabilities. Dropout figures were also higher for black and Latino students than for white and Asian students.
"Kids have been dropping out for many years before they hit the streets," said the executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, Neil Sullivan. "We have the potential to set up an early indicator system based on this research," he said, "the challenge now is to set up a response that is effective at all these points."
One response suggested by Johnson was to give failing 9th graders a chance to recover credits and graduate with their age group. According to Johnson, there's also a national trend of black male students being over-referred to special education.
The coordinator for the Latino Education Action Network at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Samuel Hurtado, blamed the dropout problem on "a culture of cover-up" in the school department. Even Johnson spoke of a need to look at "the structural issues that are working against high expectations for all."
"Kids are very sensitive to being respected or not respected," said Johnson. "Without even verbalizing it, we convey our expectations."
Students and recent graduates at the conference described their own struggles to overcome discouragement. Cindy Printemps considered dropping out after her brother died from a shooting and two close friends were arrested.
"At that moment," she said, "I didn't want to care."
An intern with Freedom House, Printemps credited a teacher with talking her out of giving up. She went on to finish high school and currently attends Bunker Hill Community College. According to a survey by the Boston Student Advisory Council, dropouts often report the lack of a "strong relationship" with teachers.
"As long as there's a strong relationship, you probably will be in school," said Mariah Smith, the student representative on the Boston School Committee.
Students and graduates at the conference also talked about how adults perceived them, and how those perceptions could be discouraging. Emmanuel Allen, a street research and referral specialist with the Private Industry Council, left Jeremiah Burke High School but eventually returned and went on to graduate from a four-year college. Even while in college, he wore clothing and jewelry that motivated a professor to ask him if he dressed like a drug-dealer.
"Because where I'm from, everybody's broke," Allen said he told the professor. "And I don't want to look like I'm broke."
District 7 City Councillor Chuck Turner noted there were students coming back to school from lock-up facilities who lacked mentoring.
"We need as volunteers from the community," said Turner, "to join hands with the school department to do something about this problem."
A deputy superintendent for schools in Dorchester, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, Janet Williams, said students need to feel there's an adult who believes it's important for them to be in school. She said she tried to do this by visiting families at home or checking up on a high school student who was at the Holland School in Dorchester when Williams was the principal.
"It's that will in here," said Williams, "to establish a relationship with parents, so they know how important it is for their children to get an education."
One former dropout who asked the superintendent a question was 19 year-old Ana Maria Rivera, a student at Boston Adult Technical Academy. Serving students ages 18-22, the academy is housed in the Madison Park High School Complex in Roxbury. Rivera said she likes being able to work mornings before starting school in the afternoon, and she likes the smaller class sizes.
"The teachers give us more one-on-one time," she said. "We get treated as adults."
On Saturday, Rivera stepped to the front of the hall to ask Dr. Johnson for the academy to have a school building of its own, where students could come in earlier and use computers. The academy's headmaster, Sheila Azores, said the students were like guests in someone else's school.
"These are the success stories," said Azores. "They have dropped in."
Chris Lovett is the news director of Neighborhood Network News on BNN-TV. This article originally appeared on his blog, which can be found online at civicboston.blogspot.com