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Half of Chicago Students Drop Out, Study Finds

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Calling the dropout problem in Chicago "a human tragedy of enormous dimensions," a recent study has found that almost half of the 39,500 public-school students in the 1980 freshman class failed to graduate, and that only about a third of those who did were able to read at or above the national 12th-grade level.

"These statistics about the class of 1984 reflect the destruction of tens of thousands of young lives, year in and year out," says the study, released in January by Designs for Change, a nonprofit research and child-advocacy organization in Chicago.

"Most of these young people are permanently locked out of our changing economy and have no hope of continuing their education or getting a permanent job with a future," the authors write.

Low Reading Ability

The report, "The Bottom Line: Chicago's Failing Schools and How To Save Them," notes that 53 percent, or 21,000 students, failed to complete high school within the public-school system; according to Suzanne Davenport, program associate for Designs for Change, about 8 percent of those students probably transferred or moved away.

Of the 18,500 students who did graduate from city schools, only 6,000 were able to read at or above the national 12th-grade level as measured by standardized tests of achievement, according to the study. Of the remaining 12,500 graduates, 5,000 were reading at or below the junior-high level.

"As disturbing as these figures are, they conceal an even more desperate situation that affects those black and Hispanic students who attend the system's segregated high schools--more than two-thirds of the original class of 1984," the study notes.

Two-thirds of Chicago's high-school students are enrolled in regular neighborhood public schools, or what the report calls "segregated, nonselective schools" on the grounds that they are usually segregated by neighborhood ethnicity, Ms. Davenport said. The other one-third are in "selective academic" or "selective vocational" high schools that require entrance examinations for admission.

For the Chicago school system overall, the high-school-completion rate is about 47 percent, compared with the national average rate of 73 percent.

But "this blanket statistic is deceptive," the study points out.

In Chicago's regular neighborhood high schools, the average completion rate is only about 38 percent, while in selective academic high schools, about 73 percent of the students graduate. In schools that are more than 70-percent Hispanic, the graduation rate is about 36 percent, while in high schools that are more than 70-percent black, about 35 percent of the students graduate, the researchers found.

The study points out that even the higher figure for academic high schools is much lower than the graduation rate for schools in suburban Chicago, where the average completion rate is 92 percent.

Reading Difficulties

In addition, of the 9,500 who do graduate from the nonselective schools, only 2,000 read at or above the national average, according to the report.

Overall, the group's research found, only 33 percent of Chicago's high-school seniors read at or above the national average.

"Thus, Chicago's graduating seniors have an extremely poor record of reading achievement, in spite of the fact that less than 50 percent complete high school in Chicago, and many who drop out before their senior year are low achievers," the study states.

Reforms Not Helping

While the study notes that the graduating class of 1984 entered high school before reforms were instituted in Chicago's elementary schools, it argues that, in fact, these reforms are doing little to stem the dropout rate and promote academic achievement.

To back up this claim, the group analyzed the reading-achievement scores of 34,800 students who were enrolled in high school as 9th graders and are expected to graduate in 1987. These are the students who would have benefited from the school reforms, the study claims.

However, the reading scores of those students on tests taken a few months before they entered high school show that only 25 percent of the class of 1987 could read at or above the national average, the report notes.

Unprepared for High School

"And 30 percent of Chicago's 9th graders are so far behind in reading that they will graduate from high school reading at or below the junior-high-school level, even if they remain in school four years," the report states. The data, it says, indicate that Chicago elementary schools are still failing to prepare students for high-school work.

"The response to bad news in the Chicago school system has become a well-developed ritual," the report states. "In reaction to public complaints about the dropout problem, for example, the schools set up task forces to 'study the problem,' in 1976, 1981, and 1984. Typically, plans for improvement function not as blueprints for change, but rather as public-relations devices to diffuse criticism.

"What is so frustrating about the continuing failure of the Chicago Public Schools," the report continues, "is that other cities and states are making basic improvements and have already turned the corner in creating schools that work."

Ten-Point Plan

Designs for Change offers a 10-point plan to improve the public schools. Among the suggestions are:

Increased parental participation organized at the school level.

Adoption of four top priorities--improving basic skills; increasing the graduation rate; increasing students' access to the job market; and increasing access to higher education.

Negotiation of an employment and higher-education compact with Chicago businesses and colleges, similar to one established a few years ago in Boston, to give preference to Chicago public-school graduates.

Setting as a top priority the goal of improving the nonselective schools.

Responding to the study's findings, William F. Jones, director of the Chicago School Department's dropout-prevention program, said city statistics put the number of dropouts at between 32 and 40 percent in any given year rather than at almost 50 percent, but he agreed that the figures denote "a devastating problem."

Mr. Jones said the recommendations offered by the organization "may have some impact," but he argued that the most important factor in preventing dropouts is "improving the quality of life through the family."

"I've been dealing with dropouts for 20 years, and I think the reasons for dropping out are mostly correlated with problems at home," he said. "The best way to improve education for kids is to have parents educated."

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