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Dropout Campaigns Envisioned for States, 50 Key City Districts

But effectiveness of community ‘summits’ not clear.
By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 03, 2008 5 min read
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Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his wife, Alma J. Powell, added their voices last week to an expanding network of prominent civic and education leaders who are calling for more aggressive measures to drive down alarming dropout rates in many of the nation’s high schools.

The Powells—through the America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit organization that Mr. Powell served as its founding chairman and that Ms. Powell now serves as chairwoman—announced a national campaign that will feature “summit” meetings in all 50 states and in 50 key cities over the next two years.

The dropout-prevention summits “will not just be meetings to talk about the problem,” Ms. Powell said at the April 1 event here, which was packed with education policy officials, leaders of community organizations, and education-related nonprofit groups. “They will be about action.”

In announcing the initiative, the America’s Promise Alliance joins a host of other nonprofit organizations, foundations, civil rights groups, and even the talk-show host and pop-culture icon Oprah Winfrey in calling for efforts to combat one of the most intractable problems in public education: graduation rates that studies suggest are, at best, 70 percent nationally, and for black and Latino students, closer to 50 percent.

A handful of the dropout-prevention summits—meant to include school leaders, students, parents, civic leaders, and community and faith-based organizations—already have taken place, including in the state of Mississippi and in Nashville,Tenn. A two-day summit is scheduled later this month in Detroit.

“The simple proposition is that this is not just a problem for our schools or our teachers,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s a problem for all of us.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings used the event to announce that the Bush administration will propose rules requiring states to follow a uniform method of calculating graduation rates.

‘Catastrophe’

Such high-profile attention to the dropout “catastrophe,” as Mr. Powell put it, is welcomed by education officials and school leaders, but how much impact such campaigns can have on reducing the number of students who leave school without a diploma is less clear.

The America’s Promise Alliance released a report, produced by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center with funding from the alliance and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that showed huge disparities between graduation rates in urban districts and neighboring suburban districts. (Editorial Projects in Education is the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.)

In Mississippi, where state schools chief Hank M. Bounds presided over a dropout-prevention summit in February attended by 2,300 people, including Gov. Haley Barbour, state education officials already were focused on the graduation issue. A statewide dropout office had been created in the education department, and Mr. Bounds had succeeded in winning passage of legislation that requires all 152 districts in the state to devise dropout-prevention plans.

Mr. Bounds said last week that he expects the statewide summit and an upcoming series of city-based summits to result in a number of concrete steps to address factors that can drive students to drop out, such as poverty and family troubles, boredom at school, and a lack of connection with adults who encourage and support school success. But just as important, he said, the summits are an opportunity to capture the attention of influential people.

“So what the summit helped us to do is gather a lot of important people, present the numbers on our dropouts that we had to them, and stir up the notion that people should be angry about this,” Mr. Bounds said.

To some educators on the front lines of dealing with dropouts, there was some skepticism about the real-world impact of publicity campaigns and meetings.

10-Point Plan for Reducing Dropout Rate

• Support accurate graduation and dropout data.
• Establish early-warning systems to support struggling students.
• Provide adult advocates and student supports.
• Support parent engagement and individualized graduation plans.
• Establish a rigorous college- and work-preparatory curriculum for high school graduation.
• Provide support options for struggling students to meet rigorous expectations.
• Raise compulsory-school-age requirements under state laws.
• Expand college-level learning opportunities in high school.
• Focus the research and disseminate best practices.
• Make increasing high school graduation and college and workforce readiness a national priority.

Source: America’s Promise Alliance

Marrius Pettiford, a high school counselor in Wake County, N.C., said campaigns like the America’s Promise effort are “helpful for bringing attention” to the problem.

“But what I think would be the most useful for addressing this problem are more opportunities for practitioners to be able to get together and share best practices,” said Mr. Pettiford, who is the dean of counseling and student services at the 1,800-student Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School. “What I want more than anything are ideas that I can reproduce here in my school.”

But to school leaders like Kim Finch of Nashville, the summits have value beyond just bringing attention to the dropout problem. She attended a citywide summit last month where leaders from businesses, community organizations, faith-based groups, schools and universities, and City Hall heard directly from students.

“The bottom line is that the achievement gap and the dropout problem is a huge social issue, and public schools cannot do it alone,” said Ms. Finch, the principal of Stratford High School and a member of a mayoral task force appointed late last year to work on the city’s graduation challenges. “It’s not the kids’ abilities, it’s often their home and neighborhood environments, and we need the entire community working with us.”

Financial Support

To bring the summits to cities and states, the America’s Promise Alliance has pledged to provide financial, planning, and logistical support. The alliance has reached out to mayor’s offices, governors, leading community organizations and nonprofit groups, and school leaders to encourage them to plan the gatherings, said Colleen Wilber, a spokeswoman for the organization.

For city summits, the alliance will provide $10,000. For states, the group will give $25,000, Ms. Wilber said. State Farm Insurance Co. is the campaign’s largest financial backer, with its pledge of $5 million. The organization will also help plan the events, Ms. Wilber said, with suggested agendas and expert speakers.

As of April 2, plans were under way for 45 summits, she said.

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist who has identified the roughly 2,000 high schools in 15 states that produce about half the nation’s dropouts every year, said the summits, at the very least, have the potential to engage community leaders outside of schools who often have a powerful influence over the lives of many would-be dropouts.

“People like juvenile-court judges,” he said. “And when the community owns this problem and is part of looking for its solutions, it will have a much more longterm impact that won’t change when superintendents come and go and mayors come and go.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 2008 edition of Education Week as Dropout Campaigns Envisioned for States, 50 Key City Districts

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