Effort to Cut Illinois Dropout Rate Is Unveiled

Published December 1, 2008

The official Illinois Task Force on Reenrolling Students Who Dropped out of School has released a report offering several recommendations to get high school dropouts back in school.

The September 2008 report calls for the creation of a new statewide initiative called the Reenrolled Student Program, which is expected to reenroll some 24,800 students annually by 2013.

“The program would consist of small class and school sizes that would provide students the personalized help they need,” explained Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative School Network, a Chicago nonprofit that helped spearhead the reenrollment effort and provides educational opportunities to inner-city children, youth, and adults.

“The program would also help students deal with the family issues that caused them to drop out in the first place,” Wuest continued. “Students can form relationships with staff and teachers who understand the types of issues affecting and preventing them from staying in school.

“Mayor [Richard] Daley and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan have been pushing for smaller schools and recognize that they do make a difference,” Wuest said. “The key to education is to get and keep students engaged, and to address the problems that may make them drop out in the first place.”

Multiple Recommendations

The report also suggests the schools be equipped with strong, experienced principals and staff, ongoing professional development for teachers, technological learning centers, mentors for students, and curricula that stress academic and career development.

Other recommendations include the development of performance standards for programs that serve reenrolled students, not counting against a school district’s dropout numbers if a reenrolled student drops out of the program, and an annual report on the condition of reenrolled students who graduate from the program.

According to the report, as of 2006 more than 100,000 Illinois students between the ages of 17 and 20 had dropped out of school. Among those between the ages of 21 and 24, 138,000 had dropped out. With about 24,000 students dropping out each academic year, education experts say a plan is needed to tackle the problem.

“There is a need for a forum to address the gap facing students who have dropped out of school,” said Veronica Anderson, editor-in-chief of Catalyst Chicago, an education magazine in the city. “These students don’t have jobs or options to become productive citizens or to learn and do better. The task force is providing a plan to give these students opportunity. There just aren’t enough options for students in the age range of dropouts.”

High Costs

The report highlights the social cost of failing to address the needs of dropouts. It notes the unemployment rate for Illinois dropouts is 47 percent and they are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested in their lifetime than high school graduates. In addition, 70 percent of men in prison are dropouts.

School officials say addressing the problem will save Illinois taxpayers money in the long run.

“The research shows that the dropout phenomenon is a problem that affects all of the state, not just Chicago,” said Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois Board of Education. “When you look at the lost earnings that a dropout encounters, and the cost to society as well as the drain on resources and loss in taxes, it’s certainly a problem that needs to be looked at further and addressed.”

Illinois taxpayers could see a cumulative cost reduction of more than $183 million by the end of 2013 thanks to the Reenrolled Students Program, the task force estimates. Reenrolling 8,000 students a year would save taxpayers $37 million over that time frame; if 11,000 students were reenrolled in a year, $51 million would be saved.

Funding Concerns

The report has been sent to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and the Illinois General Assembly for review.

The biggest obstacle to the program’s implementation is funding. In an extremely tight economy, the report recommends $32 million for the program’s first year. However, the task force contends, currently for every $100 spent on enrolled high school students, just 59 cents is spent on comprehensive opportunities for students who have dropped out.

“It’s going to come down to putting money up for the program,” Wuest said. “Hopefully the state and federal government can put up the funds that are needed to get the program started. We must have some political will from the governor’s office and the state board of education to get the funds needed to get these kids reenrolled in programs that will work for them.

“Budgets are tight, but there are way too many kids on the streets with nothing to do, and it’s directly linked to all of the violence that is plaguing our students,” Wuest continued. “Eight Chicago Public School students have already been killed, and the school year has just started.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“Illinois Task Force on Reenrolling Students Who Dropped Out of School: Final Report,” September 2008: http://www.asnchicago.org/PDFs/2008/ReenrolledStudentsFinalReport