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Educators Share Ways To Keep Youths in School

Canton Middle School, a hulking brick building not far from Baltimore's bustling Inner Harbor, has been able to do something that has stymied many other schools in this urban system: keep students coming to class.

Using a collaborative model that provides teams of school psychologists, social workers, and heath-care professionals from nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital to help students deemed at risk of dropping out, the school has raised its daily attendance rate from 79 percent in 1991 to 92 percent so far this school year.

The program was one of many strategies for improving school attendance highlighted at the 12th Annual National Dropout Prevention Network Conference, held here Oct. 1-4.

The conference, sponsored by the National Dropout Prevention Network, an organization based at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., that works to help schools devise effective approaches to keeping students in school, attracted some 800 educators and youth-service workers from 40 states.

A group of educators who visited Canton Middle School learned how the school, where 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, has improved attendance rates and earned some of the better test scores in the city.

One dropout-prevention initiative at Canton that evolved from a partnership with the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel provides struggling students with one-day-a-week, paid experiences "shadowing" hotel employees as they do their jobs.

Students can participate only if they sign a contract promising to attend school regularly and to improve their academic performance.

Jay Smink, the executive director of the dropout-prevention network, said that during a time when accountability and high-stakes testing are all the rage, thinking critically about dropout issues has fallen off the radar screen of politicians and educators.

"A decade ago, the issue was very prevalent in the national media," Mr. Smink said. "Today, it has been pushed aside by what are seen as more dynamic issues."

Jay Smink

But Mr. Smink says that as more states require students to pass challenging tests to graduate, attention to the students who can't meet the standards will grow.

"These new assessments will put dropouts in the headlines again," he predicted.

Providing strong early-childhood education, encouraging students to work with mentors, establishing alternative schools, and promoting work- based learning are among the most effective ways of keeping students in school, according to research done by the network.

A racially mixed school with 600 students in a working-class neighborhood of southeast Baltimore, Canton has used its proximity to the waterfront to promote hands-on learning.

Working with the Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides contextual learning and job training for disadvantaged students, Canton students have grown oyster beds and conducted experiments in the Chesapeake Bay.

"If they are excited about school, they will come," said Nicole Veltre, a science teacher at Canton.

All teachers have a computer and telephone at their desks. Teachers call home when students do not show up for school—a visible reminder to students in class that playing hooky is not something they will easily get away with here. Competitions are held to determine the homerooms and grades with the best attendance rates. Prizes include money that can be used for class trips.

A few years ago, the school formed a partnership with a city judge who deals with a backlog of chronic truants. The judge volunteers her time twice a month to formally summon parents of Canton students who are not attending school.

"These are the kids that are the conundrum," said Deborah Ptak, a school social worker. "Only two parents have been put in jail so far. Everyone else has stepped up to the plate."

—John Gehring

Vol. 20, Issue 6, Page 5

Published in Print: October 11, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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