Youth Issues Rise in Prominence on National Agenda

By Alina Tugend — September 17, 1986 15 min read

From New York, where the Carnegie Corporation has formed a panel on issues of adolescence to Los Angeles, where school-board members are considering an elementary-school program to combat gang behavior, the problem that put young people” at risk” for failure in school and life are rising in prominence on the policymaking agenda.

The current national focus on drug abuse is simply the latest manifestation of the surge of concern among educators and political leaders over what are being called “youth issues"-- not only drug and alcohol abuse, but teen-age pregnancy, school dropouts youth suicide, and youth unemployment.

State legislatures nationwide have enacted are considering measures to combat all or some of these problems; the governors discussed them at their recent meeting; the Congress is weighing dropout and suicide-prevention bills; and school districts and education organizations have launched a huge variety of initiatives to try to stem behaviors that at best curtail students’ academic achievement, evidence suggest, and at worst take them down a path to later personal failure and societal cost.

“As recently as 20 years ago,” says David A. Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corporation, “there was inadequate recognition that early adolescence--the period from age 10 to 15--is a distinctive and highly stressful phase. The linkage of such stress to alcohol and other drug use, smoking, unprotected sexuality, and the dangerous use of weapons has only recently gained adequate attention in the scientific and medical communities.”

Moreover, educators note, the current reform movement may be increasing the stress on at-risk young people. For that reason, a number of the new state and local initiatives are aimed at ensuring that “large numbers of students are not left behind in the pursuit of excellence,” in the words of Gary Natriello, associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Beginning last month, for example, school officials in Wisconsin were required to identify all the children in their school districts at risk for failure- those either one or more years behind in reading, chronically truant, teen parents, or with a delinquency record-and to develop a curricular program to address their needs. The mm of the effort, considered one of the most wide-ranging yet enacted, is support at-risk pupil through to high-school graduation.

‘Learning for Survival’

Dr. Hamburg, who Carnegie task force will draw on a wide range of professional opinion to develop strategies for promoting “healthier adolescent development,” suggests that young people may not recognize that problem behavior threatens their survival.

their survival. “Learning for survival has been a cardinal feature of human adaptation for millions of years--including learning from near-fatal mistakes,” he says. “Surely, contemporary adolescents have not lost the basic human capacity to learn for survival.” What i needed, he adds, is a “special set of adaptations to teach today’s adolescents survival·related skills in a way that is salient to them, intelligible, and useful in their daily lives.”

The Education Commission of the States is also engaged in a number of projects aimed at the at-risk teenager, as a follow-up to its booklet “Reconnecting Youth,” issued last year.

The first project is aimed at improving the information base about adolescents, according to Kent McGuire, a policy analyst with the commission.

“We’re focusing on dropouts, but even there, we understand that the dropout rate is an indicator of a lot of other things going on, “Mr. McGuire said. “Our objective is to look at the states to see what kind of information they currently have, to understand how it gets pulled together and how it gets used, if at all, in policymaking.”

The E.C.S. also plans to take a closer look at the state programs--particularly school-based ones--set up to serve such youths, to determine which are effective and why.

The organization will also hold forums over the next several years on at-risk issues. In addition, it plans to provide three to five states with technical assistance on the at-risk problem, particularly in the area of legislation and policy.

Mr. McGuire said the commission has raised about $350,000 for the two-year programs, primarily through foundation grants, and hopes to double that this year. The programs will all begin within the next few months, and will run “at least through this time in 1988.”

Reform’s ‘Second Wave’

“Dealing with this issue represents a second and more difficult wave of school reform,” Mr. McGuire said. “We don’t want to point fingers at schools and say this is one more problem they haven’t solved, but schools have to take kids as they come in the door. We can identify kids as early as 3rd grade who are in danger of dropping out; we need to get more sophisticated about the process.”

“We see the problem as one that’s growing,” he added. “It’s not just a function of poverty and minority status-- although it affects that population most-but· over time, we can show that the average kid is in one way or another at risk, given the issues he is dealing with in society in general.”

In fact, “dropping out of high school is again nearing the much-to-be- desired status of a scandal in education,” write Dale Mann of Teachers College in the spring issue of Columbia University’s Teachers College Record.

Calls for Federal Role

Jack Perry, a state senator from New York and senior project consultant for the interstate migrant-education council, echoed the concerns of many state leaders when he noted at Education Commission of the States’ annual conference in August that “a number of states can’t afford to handle the problem. This is an issue that just cries out for federal action.”

But while U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has proposed some initiatives--including a “bounty” system whereby a dropout would receive a credit that could be redeemed by any school that succeeds in getting the student to meet graduation requirements--the Secretary has consistently argued that I dropout prevention best left in the hands of the states, rather than the federal government.

The Congress, however, is now considering the “dropout prevention and re-entry act of 1985,” which was introduced last year by Representative Charles Hayes, Democrat of Illinois.

The bill has passed in the House, and an identical Senate bill, introduced by Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, has passed in committee and awaits a floor vote.

The bills call for 50 million for fiscal 1987, and similar sums in 1988 and 1989, to fund demonstration grants allowing local education agencies to set up dropout-prevention projects, according to Howard Woodson, Representative Hayes’s legislative director.

The grants would be awarded in competitions between school districts of similar size, he added, and the number of grants would depend on the number of applications received.

In addition, at the request of Representative Hayes and other lawmakers, the General Accounting Office is working on a report, due out next June, examining the effectiveness of local dropout programs.

Union Activity

The National Education Association, through its national foundation for the improvement of education, last year launched “Operation Rescue,” aimed at cutting the dropout rate by half by 1990. By earmarking $1 from each member’s union dues for the program, the organization has generated some $1.7 million, approximately $700,000 of which will be used to build a “war chest” for programs to stem scholastic failure.

At its annual meeting in July in Louisville, Ky., the union announced the awarding of a total of I $250,000 in grants to eight local N.E.A. affiliates to implement locally- based dropout-prevention programs.

In addition, the union in August published a booklet, “A Blueprint for Success,” that sets forth principles of successful dropout-prevention programs.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the N.E.A., also announced at an Aug. 14 press conference that the union would publish a series of booklets this fall on how teachers can help combat drug and alcohol abuse, teen-age pregnancy, eating disorders, child abuse, and teen-age depression and suicide.

“We cannot ignore the fact that these problems exist,” she Said. “Th children are in our classrooms every day.

The union has spent approximately 350,000 to produce the publications, known as the “Combat series. " The booklets will cost between 10 and $12 each and will be distributed to local affiliates nationwide.

State Programs

Some 10 states have implemented specific dropout-prevention programs, either through legislation or statewide model programs, according to Mr. McGuire of the E.C.S., and hundreds of ‘School districts ac the country are scrambling for way to fight the problem.

This past summer, Louisiana, with one of the highest dropout rates in the country, launched a pilot eight-week residential dropout program. Based on a similar Texas program it sent 100 at-risk 15- and 16- year-olds to Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge for the summer.

The students, who were all there voluntarily, were not allowed to leave the campus for the two-month period, although their parents could visit, according. to Allen Bares, a state senator and member of the Senate education committee.

They were coached in basic skills and computer skills, worked three to four hours a day at assigned jobs, and learned how to open a bank account and manage money, Mr. Bares said.

The program, funded under the federal Job Training Partnership Act, cost about $3,000 per student, he said.

South Carolina

South Carolina, which implemented a number of dropout-prevention reforms as part of a 1984 legislative package, is just beginning to see results, according to Terry Peterson, executive assistant for education in the Governor’s office.

The five-year initiatives, funded at $80 million annually, start at the preschool level, which Mr. Peterson said reflects the attitude that to prevent dropouts, “you need to start early.”

The initiatives include mandatory kindergarten and a statewide program for 4-year-olds based on the High/Scope model, a preschool curriculum that emphasizes early intervention for at-risk children.

In addition, the state appropriated $55 million annually for remediation for any student performing unsatisfactorily on the state’s basic skills assessment tests and tightened up mandatory-attendance laws to require parents to meet with school officials if a student has three consecutive unexcused absences or five in one semester.

“In the two years the programs have been in existence, the results have been very exciting,” Mr. Peterson said. “Early results show that we’ve increased by 30 percent the number of kids who passed a readiness test taken before entering 1st grade. We have reduced by one third the number of kids scoring in the bottom quartile on the state’ basic- competency tests. And truancy has been cut by about one-third.”

Local Initiatives

In school districts across the nation, officials are coming up with innovations of a different sort.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, is offering a new option called the “concurrent enrollment” program, in which high-school students can enroll simultaneously m regular classes and in adulation and occupational programs on weekends and evenings.

During the past year, district officials report, 28,000 high-school students took advantage of the “safety net” option.

“Many of the students are not doing well academically, so this provides them with a vocational-educational alternative,” said Marty Estrin, a spokesman for the district. “Also, many kids who work in their last few years in high school are not able to spend a whole day at school, so this program allows them flexibility in their schedules, as well as providing continuity in their education, without forcing them to drop out.”

Teen-age Pregnancy

Dropping out, as most experts are quick to point out, is a symptom as well as a problem.

The Children’s Defense Fund, during its campaign earlier this year to prevent “Children Having Children,” noted that 40 percent of teen-age girls who drop out of school do so because of pregnancy or marriage, and that only half of all teenagers who become parents before age 18 graduate from school.

According to statistics from a congressional report issued last year, about one million teen-agers become pregnant each year; about half the pregnancies end in abortion.

At least 17 states have set up task forces of some kind to look into the issue, according to Sharon Rodine, director for the National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting, a membership-based network of medical, education, and social-service professionals.

While much of the activity is focused on preventing pregnancies, the small but growing number of school-based programs for young I women who are pregnant or parents is expanding to include transportation and child care, Ms. Rodine said.

''Transportation is the key element that’s been left out of most programs,” she explained. “Schools offer the programs, but most students have no way of getting to them.”

And schools are also seeking child-care help from other agencies, she said. In El Paso, for example, the school district contracts with the local Y.W.C.A. to provide child care both in and out of school.

Job Skills Needed

Ironically, experts say, the fear of having no future in the working world places many young people at risk for dropping out, giving them a rationalization for school failure. The teen-ager’s reasoning, the experts say, may be “Why try so hard if it doesn’t matter?”

But this year a number of varied approaches to countering this argument are gaining ground across the country as both the private and public sectors-along with concerned individuals-try to give disadvantaged students a tangible incentive for completing their studies.

Inspired by the success of a college- tuition guarantee that the New York City businessman Eugene Lang offered a group of inner-city 6th graders several years ago, public and private concerns in several cities have expressed interest in establishing a similar program for at risk youths. (See related story on page 10.)

And in Boston last week, officials of several major corporations announced the establishment of a $5- million fund to provide tuition aid for any high-school graduate who qualifies for college admission in the city. The program will also guarantee the student a job after graduation from college. (See related story on page 1.)

But others note that inadequate job skills are a handicap that even incentives cannot overcome, and some experts say they are concerned not only with high-school dropouts, but also with graduates who may eventually drop out of the work force.

But others note that inadequate job skills are a handicap that even incentives cannot overcome, and some experts say they are concerned not only with high-school dropouts, but also with graduates who may eventually drop out of the work force.

Michael Bailin, president of Public Private Ventures, a not-for-profit corporation that designs, manages, and evaluates social-policy initiatives, said the problem of the unprepared worker is receiving more attention now because of the country’s changing demographics.

“I don’t think this is a new commitment to people who are poor,” he said, but rather a growing concern about the shrinking labor market.

Mr. Bailin also noted that more and more of the teen-agers entering the work force lack not only specific job skills but also such basic abilities as those needed to interact successfully with co-workers. For this reason, he said, the business community is finding that it has to do more on-the-job training than ever before.

“This is a function they don’t regard as theirs,” he said. “They think, ‘Why the hell do we have to do all this remedial training with all the tax dollars going to public schools?’ ”

These shortcomings, combined with increased international economic competition, he said, have brought public-policy analysts to the conclusion that “our productivity- and future productivity-is seriously at risk.”

Although the the Job Training Partnership Act has provided some help to unemployed youth, Mr. Bailin noted, “the money for training and employment has been cut back, and, because of the way the legislation is structured, it is focused on the better-prepared group of kids.”

At-risk youths, he said, are getting “a shorter shrift.”

Multi-Faceted Programs

The Summer Training and Education Program (STEP), initiated by the Ford Foundation and managed by Public/Private Ventures, is aimed specifically at that at-risk population. It is designed to improve the school performance of disadvantaged youths and increase their chances of high-school graduation by providing them with a combination of remedial education, life skills, and work experience.

The STEP program is now operating in five cities-Boston, Fresno and San Diego, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Seattle. It is targeted at 14- and 15-year-old students who are doing poorly in school and who are economically eligible for federally funded youth programs.

A recent report following up its first year found that STEP had halted the erosion in academic skills for the young people involved after entry to high school, Mr. Bailin said.

“The kind of treatment needed is multi-dimensioned, involving not just education or health or any one thing,” he stressed. “Most kids at risk have problems so substantial that there is no one solution that works.”

He said that “huge new public expenditures,” which are unlikely, are not the only solution. “We could make what we’ve got go three times as far, if we took the resources and rationed them better.”

‘A Dual Society

Mr. Bailin and others note that there are “proven and well-tested strategies” to meet the needs of at risk youths.

“Whether the focus on the at-risk population is idealistic or practical, this is not a misplaced concern these days,” he added. “The issue of an underclass and a dual society is real, because no one is reaching down for that group right now.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1986 edition of Education Week as Youth Issues Rise in Prominence on National Agenda