Monday, January 29, 2007

Dropout Problem: Solvable or Doomed?

There are the dropouts of Dickensian doom, the gathering threat of the unemployed and the dysfunctional. There are also ordinary teens or young adults thrown off track shortly before graduating from high school, sometimes even after passing the MCAS exam.

Both types of students are getting more attention, thanks to a change of state policy that makes dropouts more difficult to ignore. Under the policy, the state has begun tracking the number of students who fail to finish high school in four years, or who drop out altogether. The figures put more pressure on schools for a problem whose causes run beyond the classroom. But people working on the problem say the figures also produce more clarity, with less confusion over the large number of students who finish high school in five years. At a panel discussion last Friday, sponsored by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, there were calls for attention, not only to the persistence of the dropout problem, but to the potential for solutions.

The figures released last week by the Mass. Dept. of Education measure students over a course of five years (2002-2006). In urban schools, the four-year graduation rate was only 62%. Another 12% of the students are listed as being “still in school.” That leaves a dropout rate of 22%. For Boston, the graduation rate was 59.1%, with 16.8% still in school. The dropout rate was 20.3%, with 0.6% "permanently excluded."

There are also disparities among the statewide dropout figures themselves: 26% for Hispanic and “Limited English Proficiency” students, 21% for Low-income, 18% for African-American, 9% for white, 8% for Asian, 14% for male, 10% for female.

At Friday’s discussion, Andrew M. Sum, Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, presented more figures concerning dropouts: what happens to their earning power over time, and the toll on families and taxpayers.

“After you leave 1980, the lifetime earnings of a male dropout in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decline steadily and steeply every decade,” said Sum. “Over that 25-year period, for the average male dropout, the lifetime earnings fell by 30%.”

Not only do they make little money, according to Sum, but many of the dropouts in Massachusetts are simply out of work.

“Only two out of ten teenage dropouts are able to find any type of employment,” he said. “What you have basically is that dropping out of school is the equivalent of economic suicide.”

Sum estimates the employment rate approaches 50% as dropouts reach their early or late twenties, though he says the official numbers, which are higher, also include recent immigrants without high school diplomas.

Then there’s the cost for the rest of society.

“These young men who drop out of school not only face a far more depressed and difficult labor market, but are experiencing every fundamental social, civic, health problem, marriage rate decline, far greater than was true 25 years ago,” said Sum.

“The marriage rate of all male dropouts fell by half in the last 25 years,” he said. “As a result, the number of single-parent families created in the state was far greater than at any time in our history.”

For Sum, the dropout problem in aggregate was like the two needy children—ignorance and want—with whom the Spirit of Christmas Future confronts Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

“Our report,” said Sum, “provides empirical documentation for the spirit’s remarks that, for the average dropout, male and female in this state, economic doom is indeed written on their brow.”

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Emmanuel Allen is a Dropout Recovery Specialist for the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC). Along with having worked in violence prevention programs at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, he has a four-year college degree in computer information systems. But he dropped out of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School at age 17, only to graduate from there at age 21. His definition of a dropout: “a student who’s not in school.”

Based his outreach work with PIC, Allen describes dropouts as more willing to move on with their education than to pick up where they left off. That could mean a few months of work on one or two failing subjects, coupled with holding a job, instead of going back to high school for a full year.

“Most programs are structured in a way where you have to go back for at least a year. They don’t want to come back in year. They’ve started their adult life, you know, many of them have kids, they’re working, they’re doing things, so the traditional school setting doesn’t quite fit back into their lives,” Allen said during the panel discussion last Friday.

Allen says some of the dropouts gather enough self-esteem to return, only to end up back in schools where they had been branded as under-achievers.

“You’ve got to realize how frustrated they become,” he said, “after they’ve built up all this esteem, and that kind of esteem is taken away.”

And research by the Boston School Dept. shows many dropouts want to catch up on their education.

“Nobody talks to dropouts after they leave—nobody,” said PIC’s executive director, Neil Sullivan.

“We can talk kids back into the system in a minute,” he said.

Allen mentioned his experience of making contact with a dropout—repeatedly.

“The student said, ‘When you first called me on the phone, you said you would call me back and I didn’t believe you. But you did call me back, and you continued to call me back, you know, and thanks for that--because of that I’m back in school,’” said Allen. His conclusion: personal contact “is the biggest thing.”

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The next day, at Freedom House in Roxbury, students and adults kept referring to personal contact as a tool in dropout prevention. Their discussion was part of a forum on the racial gap in achievement organized by Community Partners for a New Superintendent.

When asked what would make school a place where students want to be, one student answered, “More teachers who understand us, instead of pushing us to the side.” Another said students “need to feel that things they learn in the classroom are applicable” to the real world. Yet another student said, “We should have after-school programs so we could do our homework, and teachers to help us.”

Students also suggested mentors who could talk to them about their personal problems—“because,” said one student, “a lot of stuff that goes on at home is on our mind during the school day.”

Said Boston School Committee member Marchelle Raynor, “We’ve got to be in a relationship with their families if we’re going to be teaching their children.”

While students and adults in one group at Freedom House were talking about the dropout problem, other groups were talking about the effect of violence and the difficulties of students with learning disabilities and limited English proficiency.

At the panel discussion Friday, Sullivan spoke about early response to the most predictable dropouts--typically students with attendance problems or above normal age for their grade level. He said the remedies would have to include work with agencies outside the school system, including the Division of Youth Services, and getting “mental health out of the closet.”

“Education is not the problem,” he said. “Education is the solution.”

Among parents and students in the circle at Freedom House, education was still part of the problem. When the group’s facilitator summed up the discussion for Boston School Superintendent Michael Contompasis, she told him burnt-out teachers should be replaced by “independent people with vision—not just the usual business model.”

While saying that “95% of the people that work in this organization do care,” Contompasis did have two dramatic ideas for turn-around. One was to designate ten “superintendent’s schools,” under-performing schools where there would be more flexibility to change educational strategy and staffing, under “a group of like-minded people.” That change would also require agreement with the Boston Teachers Union.

The “superintendent schools” are also a more proactive version of the recent decision to reorganize Boston English High School, whose persistent underperformance triggered pressure from the Mass. Dept. of Education. “I do not want to see another English High situation on my watch,” said Contompasis. If it were not for the school’s 200-year history, he said, “I would close it.”

The other idea was to have a high school fair—not for students coming out of the 8th grade, but for dropouts in search of schools or alternative programs such as Boston Evening Academy (a success whose main drawback, says Contompasis, is that “it’s not big enough”).

In the give-and-take at Freedom House, there were more ideas: arts programs, parental leave for class-time visits, attention to victims of violence, more youth workers, after-school programs, even helping students in those programs with the added cost of transportation.

At the Rennie Center discussion, some of the talk was more sweeping and ambitious. Governor Deval Patrick’s Education Advisor, Dana Mohler-Faria, called the figures presented by Sum “a wake-up call” and said the new administration was trying to “move forward with bold change.”

Sullivan said it was time for something that could fit on a bumper sticker: cutting the dropout rate in half in five years.

“It’s a policy driver that will inspire and motivate,” he said.

“We can turn this thing around in about five years,” he said. “But we have to hurry.”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Media Melting Pot

There's a new portal connecting the usually separate worlds of ethnic media, a website called New England Ethnic News, which is organized by the Center on Media & Society at UMass Boston. In recent months, the Center has been trying to forge new connections among ethnic and community news outlets--branches of the media that have been growing even as mainstream news outlets are cutting back.

One more example of ethnic convergence is a series of articles on race relations in and around Dorchester.

In this week's issue of the Dorchester Reporter, the series begins with an overview and an essay on Cape Verdean and neighborhood identity by the 17 year-old president of the Uphams Corner Youth Council, Maria Centeio.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Closing the Police-Community Gap

There’s some guardedly hopeful reaction to part of the strategy against violence mentioned in Mayor’s Menino’s State of the City speech on January 9—the advisory councils in every police district. The aims, said the mayor, were to improve communication with residents and “making sure that important information gets into the hands of the people who need it to prevent and solve crime.”

According to the associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, Jack McDevitt, similar councils have worked in other cities. “They’re another way to communicate with people,” he says. “They do tend to help, but it’s all a matter of degree.”

The CEO and president of the Louis. D. Brown Peace Institute, Clementina Chéry, says it’s a matter of who’s on the councils, and whether they’re “victim-centered.” After recent murders, Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis have been blunt about calling for more cooperation from the community. Chéry says the police have to do more to overcome the community’s distrust.

“It’s the same crime victims who are not talking to the police because they don’t trust the police,” says Chéry. She says a better strategy would be to have councils for crime victims—and more prevention.

Though somewhat better last year, the Boston Police Dept. rate of solving murder cases remains significantly below what it was in previous years. McDevitt says “continued focus on gun crimes is particularly important.” In his speech, the mayor also mentioned resources: plans for “more visibility where crime is on the rise” and more support for prevention.

City Councilor Charles Yancey says he also has recommended police-community advisory councils. He says many police officers still “have negative perceptions” of young males in the community, and he also mentions resources: “If we had a policy of maintaining pressure where we know we’re plagued with violence, we’ll have a better chance of controlling it.”

The executive director of Project RIGHT/Grove Hall, Jorge Martinez, says the councils might help prevent one other problem: the breakdown of communication that can happen when there’s a new district commander. “There should be a coalition put in place, so no matter who dies or gets promoted, the same relationship’s in place,” he says. He calls the advisory councils “very much needed,” and says they might have the credibility to get more information from people in the community. “If they don’t have a relationship,” he says, “it’s pretty hard to get people to come forward.”

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Jim Kelly: Identity and Politics

James M. Kelly died Tuesday morning at age 66, after a long struggle with cancer. In the 1970’s, he was the South Boston anti-busing leader, combative in his leather jacket. In his weekly newspaper columns, he was the outspoken champion of conservative values, even in national politics. As a Boston City Councilor for 23 years, he was the master of serving constituents. He held cookouts for them every summer and sent them Christmas cards by the box load, each of them signed in his own hand.

At-large Councilor Michael Flaherty remembers Kelly in the Saint Patrick’s Day/Evacuation Day parade, greeting familiar faces and wearing his South Boston identity with relish.

“You’d see him with has scally cap and his shillelagh when he was walking up Broadway,” said Flaherty. “He was floating.”

He could also sting. There were the verbal clashes with liberals in the City Council Chamber. There were even showdowns with Ray Flynn, another anti-busing leader from South Boston who, as mayor, was under federal mandate to break down racial barriers to public housing in South Boston and Charlestown. Kelly wanted developments in South Boston to be for people from the neighborhood, almost all of them white. The federal government said that meant more time on the waiting list for people of color willing to accept the first vacancy.

Kelly’s most contentious battle with the next mayor, Thomas Menino, was over “linkage” money for affordable housing from anticipated developments on the South Boston waterfront. Kelly wanted to corner the money for South Boston. But, during the 1980’s, when Flynn and the City Council approved linkage for the whole city, Kelly had been opposed and even called the mandatory payments “extortion.”

“He has very conservative principles,” said Flynn. “At the time, if you were for linkage, you were almost a socialist.”

At a time when there was less worry about gentrification in South Boston, according to Flynn, there were other reasons to stick up for developers: campaign contributions, and the jobs for people in trade unions who did the building. Even while he was on the Council, Kelly continued to serve as Recording Secretary for the Sheet Metal Workers Union, Local 17. And his opposition to rent control frustrated the same affordable housing advocates from around the city who supported Flynn.

“We didn’t have anything. Jimmy didn’t have anything. And for us to have this visionary outlook, this world view—it’s a little unfair,” said Flynn.

In South Boston, the outlook would have been unpopular. Even rent control was rejected in 1994 by South Boston voters (48.7% to 35.9%), who went the way of the state (though not the rest of the city).

"That's what Jimmy Kelly did: he represented his neighbors," said Flynn. "Who was he supposed to represent? The people of Berkeley, California?"

In the 1980’s, Kelly also found himself in conflict with a future state senator and legal adversary over public housing, Dianne Wilkerson, who was trying to join a Democratic ward committee representing parts of South Boston and Dorchester. She accused him of resisting a party mandate for racial inclusion. According to former Boston School Committee member and long-time director of the METCO voluntary school desegregation program, Jean McGuire, Kelly was an advocate with "blind spots," who failed to see common problems that went beyond neighborhood or racial lines.

“He was tenacious, and he felt he was the voice of the poor, and that black kids shouldn’t have to go to their schools,” she said. “The racism he felt was very thinly veiled.”

During the 1990’s, there were harsh words at Council meetings between Kelly and the district member from Dorchester and Mattapan, Charles C. Yancey. But there were also the visits to the book fairs Yancey held in his own district every year since 1987.

“He was at every one of our book fairs from the very beginning,” said Yancey. “He always supported us with books and money.”

And Flaherty says Kelly was a staunch supporter of spending in parts of his district outside South Boston, even holding off support for the mayor’s budget until there was money for improvements at a park in the South End.

“His focus was District Two,” said Flaherty.

Among those who served with Kelly, and Boston’s last two mayors, there was strong agreement about his dedication to constituent services. That took up even more of his time in his 7 years as Council President. The role gave him control over committee leadership and the council agenda, and it made him the main contact with the Mayor’s Office, even about service requests from other councilors.

“He’d be the first one to pick up the phone to make something happen for them,” said the new Council President, Maureen Feeney. She also remembered Kelly’s steady attendance at hearings on zoning appeals for development projects.

“Jim was a guy that could get things done,” said Flaherty, “and that’s why a lot of people in the Council, especially the younger guys, gravitated toward him.”

And, despite conflict over policy, mayors and department heads delivered when Kelly asked for help.

“I admired that,” said Flynn. “I respect him for doing that, because that was the politics that I grew up with and the people before me grew up with. That was the political tradition.”

Menino spoke briefly about Kelly before his State of the City address last night. “We disagreed on a lot of issues,” he said, “but his commitment to his constituents was tremendous, and his word was worth everything he had.”

Colleagues say Kelly persisted even as his health declined, passing on appeals for constituents as late as last Saturday.

“Even when his body was being ravaged, he continued to serve his district,” said Feeney. “For me, that was so selfless, that he could put everything aside to do the work of the people he loved so much.”

According to Roxbury Councilor Chuck Turner, attention to constituent services might also be the best way to engage voters of the future, especially given the Council’s limited powers to make laws and affect spending.

“It says to people that someone who’s in a position of what they see as power is willing to use that for them, and not just their friends,” said Turner.

“If we want people to really have a desire to participate,” he said, “then we can’t just do things in the old way that’s uncaring. We have to show that government cares.”

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Inaugural Post: Crowd and Power

They looked like the people who could have crisscrossed the Boston Common any weekday: people of different races, different attire, different ages, not to mention walks of life. But, instead of going their way, they were flocked together on the slope of the Boston Common and overflowing onto Beacon Street. There were even faces looking on from windows high above Park Street.

What most of them also had in common was that it was hard to actually see Deval Patrick’s inauguration as the new governor, or even to catch it on a wide screen in front of the State House. For many, the inauguration was something to be absorbed, inferred, or even invented—a center of attention that took its bearings from the crowd.

Once the governor began his address, the crowd played its part with rounds of applause. There were also the preschoolers sitting down for lunch on Beacon Street. And there was the man in the brown mariner’s cap who walked about with a “Romney for President” sign, saying, “They shouldn’t be closing down the street like this.”

The address really did connect with the setting. The crowd was an extension (if only in time) of all those people who had arrived in Massachusetts on their different ships (though Patrick also mentioned others who had left the state behind). The connection with history embraced the Africans struggling for freedom on the Amistad and, just across from the ceremony on the steps of the State House, the renowned sculpture of the 54th Regiment. Just as the sculpture had morphed from what had originally been planned as a white commander on a horse, so had the more cloistered way of inaugurating a new governor. Instead of the sculpture being the “fishbone” in the city’s throat (words of Robert Lowell)—tough to swallow in the face of racial injustice and the “savage servility” of the age—it would practically be a backdrop for the governor’s clear voice. For a time, it was easier to overlook the recent UMass/McCormack Institute poll that found low ratings for race relations in Massachusetts and declining confidence in state government.

For all the novelty of the inauguration, the turnout may have been as small as the short-notice crowd on the same spot that greeted the Red Sox after the World Series victory in 2004. And neither of these events could match the biggest protests against the war in Vietnam. The crowd at the inaugural also had its limits of attention, as was the case with one woman who started back down Beacon Street after the new governor described his plan to reorganize the executive branch. “All right,” she said. “That’s it. I’m going.”

She missed the end of the speech, the stately crescendo in which people descended from their different ships of exile ascended to the “City on a Hill” as “God’s Children.” As the volume increased, it seemed the governor’s voice reverberated from high-rise condos and office towers, turning the space bounded by the State House and the Boston Common into one enormous room. The effect was churchly—perhaps one more throwback, to a time when the line between church and state in Massachusetts was practically non-existent. After all, this was oratory, political, though less like everyday sound bites than a sermon to believers (and true to its base in the Latin word for prayer). It’s hard to suppose that even the most wishful governor thought everyone standing before him believed in him and his agenda with dogmatic uniformity. But it was also hard to resist entirely the appeal of being part of something that was even larger than the physical dimensions of its time and place. Short of undergoing a religious conversion, I could sense how the event squared with Elias Canetti’s formulation: “In the crowd the individual feels he is transcending the limits of his own person. He has a sense of relief, for the distances are removed which used to throw him back on himself and shut him in.”

More likely, this was the effect on a man I met a few hours later, just after sunset. This was at Park Street and Tremont Street. The man was legally blind, and he had a cane, along with a medallion stamped with the letters “TRAV.” He was among the people who thought of the State House as their house, going inside one by one to shake hands with the new governor. The man said he asked the governor about serving on a public health advisory council. When the governor asked him why, he said it was because he knew about the needs of people who were visually impaired. He also knew about the importance of a campaign visit by candidate Deval Patrick to the Perkins School for the Blind.

The only reason we had this exchange was that the man noticed that I was taking a photo of the State House with a small digital camera on a tripod. I was in the middle of Park Street, paradoxically freed by a police barrier. Thanks to the inaugural, there was a rare opportunity to shoot photos from a corner that would normally be overrun with traffic. As I went back to the viewfinder, I wondered what it was that could be seen by someone who was legally blind. Beyond the darkness gathering in the Boston Common, the State House portico looked all the more illuminated. What also drew my attention was how close it seemed to the rest of the city: the grid of bare branches and wrought-iron fence, and the people mostly coming down the hill--small, dim, separate figures heading back home.