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Drummond: Finding solutions to help high school dropouts

Resource type: News

Oakland Tribune |

By Tammerlin Drummond

In Oakland and in other cities around the country, students have been dropping out of high school in droves. The numbers for African-Americans are especially dire: Those leaving school versus those graduating have been virtually neck and neck.

That was before the current economic crisis during which millions of Americans have lost their jobs and homes.

As their families struggle to gain a foothold on an increasingly slippery slope, the reality for many teenagers is that they will not attend the same high school from 10th through the 12th grade. They might have to move two, maybe three times during the school year. They might have to suddenly move in with a grandparent. If things are really bad, kids don’t have any place to stay at all. The number of school-age children in Oakland, a city with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, is soaring.

Is it any surprise that so many are falling by the wayside?

“There are lots of kids who are pushed out,” says Kitty Kelly Epstein, director of education for Mayor Ron Dellums. “They don’t drop out in the sense that it is a decision. There is something happening that makes them not able to go anymore.”

Last week, Dellums announced a series of initiatives targeting Oakland’s high school dropout rate.

Dellums said the new proposals will follow on the heels of the school-based health centers that will open at every major Oakland middle school within the next two years. The health centers, funded by grants from Kaiser Permanente and Atlantic Philanthropies, will treat children for ailments that might otherwise force them to leave school.

The grants enable the middle schools to expand on-campus medical, dental and counseling services, add after-hours and summer programming and offer family support. This is the first time, according to city officials, that there has been a collaborative effort among so many entities to try to lure those who have dropped out back into a high school program and to support at-risk students so they will stay in school. The partners include the Oakland Unified School District, the mayor’s education task force, Peralta College, the Oakland Education Association, and the United Way.

The idea, Dellums says, is to “invite” dropouts to re-enroll in a high school program by directing them to a program that is appropriate for their particular needs. On Jan. 17, the city will host an options fair for those wishing to return to school. The city of Oakland and Peralta College, which recently began offering a curriculum especially for dropouts, will provide continuing education information.

Dellums also announced plans for an advocate program. Trained volunteers from the community would act as mentors but also intervene on behalf of students who are at risk of dropping out for reasons beyond their control. Too many absences because Mom has cancer or, perhaps because the family was temporarily homeless.

Officials are also exploring ways — given the reality of today — to give students at least partial credit if they must be away from school for legitimate family reasons. The way the guidelines are set up now, a student who exceeds the allowable number of absences gets no credit at all, which, in turn, leads many to give up and drop out.

Earlier this year, Oakland was one of five California cities to receive a $10,000 grant from America’s Promise. The organization, founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, is committed to improving the lives of 15 million disadvantaged children over the next five years.

The grants are to be used to host dropout summits. Oakland has scheduled a summit for fall 2009, where, city officials say, they will report on the progress they have made in reducing dropout rates.

Meanwhile, Epstein has been working with Holy Names education professor Kimberly Mayfield and other educators to recruit a more diverse teaching force, which is key in retaining minority students.

There are of course a number of factors that are beyond local control. Students complete all of their required course work but still can’t graduate because they can’t pass the high school exit exam. Good teachers can’t get hired full-time — despite their proven classroom experience dealing with troubled kids — because they can’t pass the California Basic Educational Skills “CBEST” test required to get a credential.

But city officials and community leaders said they’ll work to change those polices later. Right now, the focus is on what they can change — with little budget.

“The school system cannot do this alone,” Dellums said. “But as a total community, we can solve this issue.”

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