Most high-school dropouts think they could have stayed in school, gotten better grades, and graduated. They just didn't want to.
That was one of the findings of a national survey funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And it was part of a discussion about dropouts in a roundtable program at the University of Rochester last week, led by incoming School Board member Van White. The district's drop-out rate was a focus of his successful election campaign this fall.
Participants in the roundtable included School Board member Tom Brennan; the Rochester school district's chief of staff, Kim Dyce-Faucette; former School Board member Jim Bowers; Police Chief David Moore, and the University of Rochester's special programs director, Gayle Jagel.
All acknowledged the urgency and complexity involved in improving the district's low graduation rates.
"A number of years ago, these students could still leave high school and get a decent-paying manufacturing job," White said. "But that is not going to happen today."
The UR'sJagel described some at-risk students as "academically neutral." These students attend school, but they are there in body only and have little interest in the core subjects of English, math, and science. They don't see a benefit to getting good grades, since they aren't planning to attend college.
"If you talk to these kids," she said, "they will tell you they could have done better. They just didn't want to."
Jagel cited the national survey funded by the Gates Foundation, which was titled "Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts." Surveyors talked to dropouts in 25 urban, suburban, and rural school districts and reported that 70 percent were confident they could have graduated if they had wanted to.
The students believed they could have handled the workload, said Jagel. "They didn't lack aptitude. They had the wrong attitudes about life and learning."
As part of a local effort to intervene with at-risk students and reshape their attitude before they drop out, the UR and several other area higher-education institutions are offering enrichment courses to area high school students. Some of the UR's programs are held at the high schools. Others are held on the UR campus. In its Taste of College program, for example,students take undergraduate courses at the UR for credit. Seventy-six Rochester school district students have participated in that program.
In the UR's Rochester Scholars program, students take non-credit mini-courses during school breaks. The program helps students improve their study habits and learn how to cope with the rigors of college life. In the UR's year-long Young Entrepreneurs program, students create and run a small business.
"We've learned to capitalize on their interest in earning their own money," Jagel said. "It really clicks something on with them. They see this as a way out of poverty. They gain a real sense of power and control with this kind of success."
The UR plans to increase its commitment to enrichment programs, the majority of which are in their third year. Satisfaction surveys from students show that more than 98 percent would take the program again. And the UR is starting to see undergraduate students who have participated in their high-school programs.
"This is a big transformation," Jagel said. "Getting them to the point where they see themselves here after they complete high school is a huge change. Many of them are the first in their family to attend college."
But Jagel says it has been hard to get Rochester school district students to participate. This year, for instance, only one Rochester student participated in the Young Entrepreneurs program. School counselors and teachers can nominate students for the UR's programs. Many city teachers and counselors are either unaware of the programs, however, or are too busy to complete the paperwork. Transportation and fear of high tuition costs, she says, may also deter city students. The university provides scholarships for some of its programs, she said.
But while college prep-style programs impressed participants at last week's roundtable, they represent only a partial solution.
The Rochester school district's chief of staff, Kim Dyce-Faucette, said it's time to look at options for students who can't complete high school in four years.
"It would be nice if every student can make it across the stage in four years," she said, "but some of these kids are dealing with so many personal issues. We have to look at creating options for students, and we have to work with parents to make them understand that this is not failure. Don't fear this. It is much, much worse if they don't graduate at all."
It was a point welcomed by Police Chief Moore, who advocated keeping students in school by letting them advance at their own pace. But White and others were concerned about offering students that kind of alternative. It could indicate that the district is lowering the bar for them, they said.
"This can't become a dumping ground for the student that is seen as not being able to achieve," White said. "We have to look at every student as being able to achieve, and I worry about the idea of an alternative approach, because we are living in a traditional world."
And White said his concern extends beyond improving the district's graduation rate. "The real goal," he said, "is enrolling more district kids in college."