Apr 26, 2012 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.
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High school dropout crisis

Forum, the most-listened-to locally produced public radio talk show in the nation—hosted by Michael Krasny—recently produced two hour-long segments focusing on the nation's high school dropout crisis. It was a powerful listening experience.  Here are three key messages clearly expressed by the panelists, that all education policy makers should be aware of:

  1. The roots, causes, and facets of the dropout crisis are numerous and complex.
    • Many interconnected factors contribute to the dropout crisis. The remedy will not arrive via a singlesolution, even a heavily funded one such as the “small schools” approach formerly sponsored by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  After investing 2 billion dollars in this strategy, with a specific aim to decrease dropout rates, the foundation pulled the plug when the approach didn’t produce the desired outcomes.  (Michael Kirst, President of the California State Board of Education and Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University)
    • Many students decide to leave school due to the influence of friends who have already dropped out. In some ways, the choice to drop out has been "normalized," especially in families where no members have graduated high school. The question becomes, “No one in my family has graduated from high school, why should I?"(Jalissa, student/audience member and Edson Gonzalez, Castlemont Business and Information Technology School student, age 17, panelist)
  2. Entrenched paradigms need to be reassessed.
    • Accepted notions of "success" in high school are too narrow.  Non-cognitive skills and abilities that students and future workers need to be successful—such as perseverance, punctuality, and interpersonal skills—are not measured by tests and academic achievement, but do need to be recognized as valuable skills in a more inclusive definition of achievement and success. (Russell Rumberger,Vice Provost for Education Partnerships at the University of California Office of the President, Director of the California Dropout Research Project, and author of the book "Dropping Out"
    • Restorative justice, a system for dealing with undesirable student behavior in a corrective, healing manner, can replace traditional punitive measures (such as suspensions) that are typical in the US educational system.  This approach is especially needed at the high school level. (Fania Davis, Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth)
  3. The heart matters.
    • The importance of caring relationships between educators and students is immeasurable. Students need to know they are loved and that their teachers have high expectations of them.(Aryn Bowman ,Acting Principal for East Oakland School of the Arts, Alykhan Boolani, 10th Grade Math and World History Teacher/School Culture Leader at East Oakland School of the Arts)
    • Many students who are at risk of dropping out may come from poverty, may lack a recognizable family unit, and/or may experience violence in the home or community.  Educators must be cognizant of, and sensitive to the harsh, uncertain realities these students may be experiencing in their day-to-day lives, while also maintaining high expectations.(Sagnicthe Salazar, Restorative Justice and School Culture Coordinator at the Castlemont Business and Information Technology School)
    • There is a need to approximate a "middle class family" support structure for students who are often experiencing distress, trauma, and need, but who do not receive support at home. The government-funded Full Service Community Schoolsprogram attempts to provide this support and aid the overall well being of students by providing counseling, food, a safe environment, and other services to students. (Tony Smith Superintendent of the Oakland Joint Unified School District)

Whether or not we, as educators, agree or disagree with the specific strategies and programs proposed here, it is clear that the educators assembled in these two editions of Forum inject a much-needed jolt of hope and fresh, forward-looking thinking into a system that is in need of reassessment, review, and reinvention.

Click hereto listen/download the first hour, and herefor the second hour. 

*The shows were recorded live at Castlemont High School in Oakland, a city where the dropout rate is 40%–more than twice the state average of 18% and well over the national average of 25%. Castlemont High is currently comprised of 3 "small schools": Castlemont Leadership Preparatory, Castlemont Business and Information Technology School, and East Oakland School of the Arts. It will revert back to a one-school entity in August 2012.


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