Milwaukee Takes On a Tough Problem: The Dropout Rate

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If the school district here wants to avoid a possible state takeover, it needs to figure out how to motivate students like Brandon Leak.

The gregarious 9th grader thought about dropping out of Pulaski High School in the fall when he realized he was close to failing most of his classes. He said some teenagers in his neighborhood make a lot of money selling drugs.

"School is just too hard," the 16-year-old said during a break from his algebra class. "It stresses me out. But I know I gotta be here to pass."

The Poverty Factor

Of Milwaukee's 18 regular high schools, the three with the highest proportions of poor students in 1996-97 also had the highest dropout rates.

Dropout Rate* Poor Students**
North Division High School 35% 72%
South Division High School 23% 78%
Washington High School 17% 73%

*Students in grades 9-12 who dropped out.

**Percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

SOURCE: Milwaukee Public Schools.

Whether he and thousands of others like him stick it out and earn a diploma is of keen concern to educators in this 106,000-student district, who are under pressure from state leaders to improve the dropout rate and other measures of achievement.

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson is vowing to seek legislative approval to replace the elected school board with an appointed one if the district doesn't lower the dropout rate from 14 percent to 9 percent by June 2000. ("Wis. Judge Finds State's School Aid System Constitutional," Aug. 6, 1997.)

And state Superintendent John T. Benson is blaming the district for inflating the statewide dropout rate. He notes that Milwaukee accounts for nearly half of Wisconsin's dropouts despite educating fewer than 9 percent of the state's high school students.

The idea that the city needs to keep more students in school isn't a new one. A recent visit to three city high schools revealed a variety of efforts already in place that are designed to keep students interested. Yet the dropout rates at those schools remain high, illustrating the difficulty the district will face in meeting a state mandate to cut the overall rate by more than a third.

State and district officials are proposing additional reforms, but an influx of new money is doubtful and the district has little of its own to spare as it struggles to trim a bloated central bureaucracy. The teachers' union has blocked efforts to close failing schools and allow principals to choose their own staffs.

Those factors, combined with the city's rampant poverty, unemployment, and teenage pregnancy, mean the odds against a districtwide turnaround are high. "Kids go home to environments that you and I would never dream of trying to survive in," said Willie J. Jude, the principal of North Division High School, which lost 330 students last year--35 percent of its enrollment.

Candy Bars and Coupons

On a recent morning at Pulaski High School, several classes in the cavernous brick building were half-empty. "It's Friday," students explained. Last year, 16 percent of the students dropped out.

Brandon Leak, however, was in algebra class, wearing the Nike sneakers and baggy jeans that are omnipresent in schools these days. He is in the class with a dozen 9th graders who failed the course last semester.

Though the class was watching the Civil War movie "Glory," in honor of Black History Month, most days are spent studying dry textbooks, the 9th grader complained.

The science class taught by David Nelson is popular because it involves hands-on experiments, like growing plants without water and building hot-air balloons. "They need to make school more interesting," said 9th grader Amelia Coronado, during a physics lesson in the class. "Kids think they have better things to do."

Such widespread apathy means that vocational counselor Bob Kuss has to do a lot of cajoling to keep some students in school. He guesses that half the 83 students in a district-sponsored program that provides part-time jobs would be on the street if they weren't spending part of the day outside the classroom.

"I feel like a used-car salesman some days," Mr. Kuss said. "I ask the kids, 'If we let you leave here at one o'clock, will you commit to coming to school 90 percent of the time?'"

The school even gives good students candy bars, fast-food coupons, and T-shirts--prizes generally associated with elementary schools. "Some people think we're trying to bribe students," said Gail Sanders, who runs the rewards program. "We feel like we need to keep them in school by any means necessary."

Grouping 9th Graders

Pulaski's principal, Michael Sonnenberg, has other ideas, but they cost a lot more than Snickers bars: more technology, better teacher training, and smaller classes.

He would also like to break 10th and 11th graders into smaller groups, a strategy that seems to work with 9th graders, who are divided into groups of about 130. Each group goes to class together, and its teachers have common planning time.

That approach has shown promise with 9th graders in the Detroit public schools. The 183,000-student district has adopted an aggressive strategy to deal with students during what many experts agree is a crucial year in determining whether students will remain in school. ("Detroit Schools Target 9th Grade in Effort To Reduce Dropout Rate," Dec. 3, 1997.)

The city's high schools also offer summer school and employ administrators and counselors who work only with 9th graders. The program, which costs $16 million a year, appears to be curbing the dropout rate there.2

So far, no one is talking about an investment on that scale for Milwaukee. "My major concern is that resources are made available to help our schools make progress," Mr. Sonnenberg said.

Superintendent Alan Brown is scraping dollars together for a six-week summer session, after-school programs, and a better reading curriculum. Milwaukee is among more than 100 districts suing the state over perceived inequities in Wisconsin's school finance formula.

But when Gov. Thompson delivered his election-year ultimatum to Milwaukee last month, he offered the district only $2.5 million for after-school programs.

The Republican governor suggested that the state already provides plenty of aid. That view is shared by many rural, conservative members of the predominantly Republican legislature, who view Milwaukee as a sinkhole that guzzles money and yields poorly educated students.

Targeting At-Risk Students

"High Standards Start Here" reads the orange banner draped across North Division High School, set in a destitute neighborhood on the city's north side that is rife with drug use and broken families.

"If your mama isn't telling you to come to school, why should you listen to a teacher?" said sophomore Rosalye Newton, explaining why many of her classmates have dropped out. "I have to come to school, no ifs, ands, or buts, or my mom will catch me."

But many of the educators here say the school should be able to overcome problems outside its walls. "Just because students may come from miserable conditions doesn't mean they can't learn," said Mr. Jude, the principal.

At Grandview High, a few miles away, about 75 of the 215 students are parents. The classrooms are on the second floor; the first floor is a public-health clinic.

Grandview is one of 42 schools the district has set aside to address the needs of students considered at risk: chronic truants, teenage parents, former dropouts, juvenile delinquents, and academic failures.

In many ways, schools like this illustrate the difficulty of meeting specific goals of reducing the dropout rate--even of calculating the rate in general. Some officials here note that many of the schools for at-risk children have very high dropout rates under the district's formula, and believe it is unfair to include them in the overall rate.

'Numbers Game'

The district is also considering revising the overall formula--a change that could undermine the figures cited by Gov. Thompson in issuing his challenge. For years, the formula has been the number of dropouts divided by the number of students who attend school on the third Friday of September.

That's the day the state counts students to determine financial aid, so schools have an unusual incentive to focus on attendance. Accurate enrollment and dropout counts are also difficult since one-third of the district's students change addresses every year.

"It's all a numbers game," said Leon Todd, a Milwaukee school board member.

Miguel Aguirre, a Grandview senior, said he missed practically his entire sophomore year when he was enrolled at Milwaukee Technical High School. "I think they called my house twice and sent one letter," he said.

At Grandview, teachers call students at home who miss a single day. Small classes and parenting lessons also distinguish the school, though 16 percent of its students stopped coming last year.

"In other schools, they don't care if you're a parent. They just give you work," said 16-year-old Sarah Sparks, the mother of an infant. Asked why she dropped out of Hamilton High School a year ago, she said, "I pretty much didn't care about anything."

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