There are the dropouts of Dickensian doom, the gathering threat of the unemployed and the dysfunctional. There are also ordinary teens or young adults thrown off track shortly before graduating from high school, sometimes even after passing the MCAS exam.
Both types of students are getting more attention, thanks to a change of state policy that makes dropouts more difficult to ignore. Under the policy, the state has begun tracking the number of students who fail to finish high school in four years, or who drop out altogether. The figures put more pressure on schools for a problem whose causes run beyond the classroom. But people working on the problem say the figures also produce more clarity, with less confusion over the large number of students who finish high school in five years. At a panel discussion last month, sponsored by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, there were calls for attention, not only to the persistence of the dropout problem, but to the potential for solutions.
The figures released recently by the Mass. Dept. of Education measure students over a course of five years (2002-2006). In urban schools, the four-year graduation rate was only 62 percent. Another 12 percent of the students are listed as being "still in school." That leaves a dropout rate of 22 percent. For Boston, the graduation rate was 59.1 percent, with 16.8 percent still in school. The dropout rate was 20.3 percent, with 0.6 percent "permanently excluded."
There are also disparities among the statewide dropout figures themselves: 26 percent for Hispanic and "Limited English Proficiency" students, 21 percent for Low-income, 18 percent for African-American, 9 percent for white, 8 percent for Asian, 14 percent for male, 10 percentfor female.
At a Jan. 26 discussion, Andrew M. Sum, Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, presented more figures concerning dropouts: what happens to their earning power over time, and the toll on families and taxpayers.
"After you leave 1980, the lifetime earnings of a male dropout in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decline steadily and steeply every decade," said Sum. "Over that 25-year period, for the average male dropout, the lifetime earnings fell by 30 percent."
Not only do they make little money, according to Sum, but many of the dropouts in Massachusetts are simply out of work.
"Only two out of ten teenage dropouts are able to find any type of employment," he said. "What you have basically is that dropping out of school is the equivalent of economic suicide."
Sum estimates the employment rate approaches 50 percent as dropouts reach their early or late twenties, though he says the official numbers, which are higher, also include recent immigrants without high school diplomas.
Then there's the cost for the rest of society.
"These young men who drop out of school not only face a far more depressed and difficult labor market, but are experiencing every fundamental social, civic, health problem, marriage rate decline, far greater than was true 25 years ago," said Sum.
"The marriage rate of all male dropouts fell by half in the last 25 years," he said. "As a result, the number of single-parent families created in the state was far greater than at any time in our history."
For Sum, the dropout problem in aggregate was like the two needy children - ignorance and want - with whom the Spirit of Christmas Future confronts Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."
"Our report," said Sum, "provides empirical documentation for the spirit's remarks that, for the average dropout, male and female in this state, economic doom is indeed written on their brow."
Emmanuel Allen is a dropout recovery specialist for the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC). Along with having worked in violence prevention programs at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, he has a four-year college degree in computer information systems. But he dropped out of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School at age 17, only to graduate from there at age 21. His definition of a dropout: "a student who's not in school."
Based his outreach work with PIC, Allen describes dropouts as more willing to move on with their education than to pick up where they left off. That could mean a few months of work on one or two failing subjects, coupled with holding a job, instead of going back to high school for a full year.
"Most programs are structured in a way where you have to go back for at least a year. They don't want to come back in year. They've started their adult life, you know, many of them have kids, they're working, they're doing things, so the traditional school setting doesn't quite fit back into their lives," Allen said during the panel discussion last Friday.
Allen says some of the dropouts gather enough self-esteem to return, only to end up back in schools where they had been branded as under-achievers.
"You've got to realize how frustrated they become," he said, "after they've built up all this esteem, and that kind of esteem is taken away."
And research by the Boston School Department shows many dropouts want to catch up on their education.
"Nobody talks to dropouts after they leave - nobody," said PIC's executive director, Neil Sullivan.
"We can talk kids back into the system in a minute," he said.
Allen mentioned his experience of making contact with a dropout - repeatedly.
"The student said, 'When you first called me on the phone, you said you would call me back and I didn't believe you. But you did call me back, and you continued to call me back, you know, and thanks for that &endash; because of that I'm back in school,'" said Allen. His conclusion: personal contact "is the biggest thing."
On Jan. 27, at Freedom House in Grove Hall, students and adults kept referring to personal contact as a tool in dropout prevention. Their discussion was part of a forum on the racial gap in achievement organized by Community Partners for a New Superintendent.
When asked what would make school a place where students want to be, one student answered, "More teachers who understand us, instead of pushing us to the side." Another said students, "need to feel that things they learn in the classroom are applicable" to the real world. Yet another student said, "We should have after-school programs so we could do our homework, and teachers to help us."
Students also suggested mentors who could talk to them about their personal problems - "because," said one student, "a lot of stuff that goes on at home is on our mind during the school day."
Said Boston School Committee member Marchelle Raynor: "We've got to be in a relationship with their families if we're going to be teaching their children."
While students and adults in one group at Freedom House were talking about the dropout problem, other groups were talking about the effect of violence and the difficulties of students with learning disabilities and limited English proficiency.
At the panel discussion the day before, Sullivan spoke about early response to the most predictable dropouts--typically students with attendance problems or above normal age for their grade level. He said the remedies would have to include work with agencies outside the school system, including the Division of Youth Services, and getting "mental health out of the closet."
"Education is not the problem," he said. "Education is the solution."
Among parents and students in the circle at Freedom House, education was still part of the problem. When the group's facilitator summed up the discussion for Boston School Superintendent Michael Contompasis, she told him burnt-out teachers should be replaced by "independent people with vision - not just the usual business model."
While saying that "ninety-five percent of the people that work in this organization do care," Contompasis did have two dramatic ideas for turn-around. One was to designate ten "superintendent's schools," under-performing schools where there would be more flexibility to change educational strategy and staffing, under "a group of like-minded people." That change would also require agreement with the Boston Teachers Union.
The "superintendent's schools" are also a more proactive version of the recent decision to reorganize Boston English High School, whose persistent underperformance triggered pressure from the Mass. Dept. of Education. "I do not want to see another English High situation on my watch," said Contompasis. If it were not for the school's 200-year history, he said, "I would close it."
The other idea was to have a high school fair - not for students coming out of the 8th grade, but for dropouts in search of schools or alternative programs such as Boston Evening Academy (a success whose main drawback, says Contompasis, is that "it's not big enough").
In the give-and-take at Freedom House, there were more ideas: arts programs, parental leave for class-time visits, attention to victims of violence, more youth workers, after-school programs, even helping students in those programs with the added cost of transportation.
At the Rennie Center discussion, some of the talk was more sweeping and ambitious. Governor Deval Patrick's Education Advisor, Dana Mohler-Faria, called the figures presented by Sum "a wake-up call" and said the new administration was trying to "move forward with bold change."
Sullivan said it was time for something that could fit on a bumper sticker: cutting the dropout rate in half in five years.
"It's a policy driver that will inspire and motivate," he said.
"We can turn this thing around in about five years," he said. "But we have to hurry."
Chris Lovett is the news director and anchor of BNN-TV's Neighborhood Network News. For more of his analysis on city issues, check out his CivicBoston blog: www.civicboston.blogspot.com