College & Workforce Readiness

Boycotting Dropouts: Another Alternative

By Catherine Gewertz — August 13, 2009 2 min read
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You might recall that I blogged recently about the Texas’ education commissioner’s suggestion that businesses refuse to hire high school dropouts. His argument was that this would send a strong message to teenagers that they need to earn their diplomas to get decent jobs.

That post prompted a gentleman in Dallas to write to me about a very different approach to keeping kids in the school pipeline.

Bill Betzen, a social worker-turned-computer-applications-teacher at Quintanilla Middle School in the Dallas Independent School District, said that before 2005, data projections showed only 37 percent of the inner-city school’s students went on to graduate from high school.

Feeling that some of the problem was the absence of a “future focus” for the adolescents, he designed a project to help them see a clearer and more promising path. He and his school got someone to donate a big gun vault, and they bolted it to the floor in the school lobby under spotlights.

When students began asking questions, they were told it was the school archive, which would be a storehouse of letters they write to themselves before they leave for high school. In the letters, they would share their histories, describe their current lives, and lay out their plans for what they hope to be doing 10 years down the line.

The project was instantly popular, Betzen says. Holding their letters, students posed for a big group photo the last week of 8th grade. Then they lined up and put their letters on their class’ shelf inside the vault.

Each student receives two copies of that photo: one for them and one for their parents to hang onto. The backs of the photos have a description of the project and details about their 10-year class reunion. They are to get their letters back at the reunion, and will be invited to speak to the current 8th graders about their recommendations for success, Betzen said.

The first class to write letters were 8th graders in 2005, so they were members of the high school class of 2009. The two high schools that Quintanilla students attend had the largest senior graduating classes in more than a decade that year, Betzen says. Since the project started, the 9th-to-10th-grade attrition rate at those schools has declined 26 percent, he says.

Now I’ll jump in here to say that I have not verified these data claims, or poked around to see what else might have been happening in Dallas ISD that might have influenced promotion or graduation rates. So keep that in mind.

But here is Betzen again on what he sees as the power of the project: “A simple, credible, focus on the future is the most powerful weapon we have in battling our nation’s dropout crisis,” he says. And he notes that the project costs less than two dollars per year for each 8th grader (future class reunions will add to that).

America’s Promise Alliance featured the project in its June newsletter. Betzen himself has created a website about it and describes it in detail there as well.

Sounds to me like a far less punitive way to keep kids in school than to shut off their job pipeline.

Though I can’t help but add that while a “future focus” could surely help many adolescents, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds will never get there without terrific academic preparation and proper emotional supports as well.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.