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School dropouts often lack personal connection, panelists say

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 16, 2013: Many of the factors typically cited for dropout problem in American schools – money, overcrowding, poverty, testing – came up during a live television town hall Monday night, but the one that seemed to resonate most was more personal than institutional.

Watch the town hall meeting.

Students, teachers and others said during the broadcast originating at the Nine Network in St. Louis that too often, kids leave high school before they graduate because they don’t really have any adults who understand them and to whom they can relate.

Student Marquee Banderet put it this way:

“Some kids have no interest in learning because they have no relationship with their teachers.”

Discussing peers who were no longer attending class, another student added:

“A lot of them had the impression that when they left school, nobody even knew that they had left.”

The town hall meeting, hosted by Ray Suarez of PBS, was the latest program in the American Graduate effort, designed to help keep students in school. The show noted that the graduation rate for U.S. students is the highest since 1974, but there still is a dropout every 26 seconds – more than 100 during the hour-long broadcast.

Suarez, his guests on the podium and the parents, business people, educators and students in the audience talked about the reasons the issue was so hard to solve. They were joined by people on Twitter, using the hashtag #amgradstl.

How can teachers make sure they are providing students with the support they need, both educational and emotional, particularly when financial pressures are leading in many places to larger classes?

Teachers who responded said it depends on how much support they themselves can get from the administrators in their building. Elizabeth Bender, principal of Gateway STEM High School agreed, saying that the pressures that teachers feel is “immense.”

“The stories from my students are enough to bring me to tears at any moment,” Bender added.

One hero of the broadcast was Charlie Bean, a dropout tracker for the St. Louis Public Schools, who has brought back more than 80 students over the past two years. He said the key was speaking the truth to students, giving them a blueprint to follow, and making sure they stick to it.

“If you give them certain steps,” he said, "they’re going to follow those steps you give them. You just keep pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing.”

One of his success stories, Malik Avery, said that Bean “was the first person honestly since seventh grade who wanted to know what was going on in my life….

“If I needed help, he would be there. If I needed support for something, he would be there. That kind of connection makes a student want to go to school.”

SheRon Chaney, the parent of four children, said that she wants teachers to support and carry on the work she starts with her kids at home. But she also acknowledged that in some respects, the relationship her children have with their teachers may be deeper than what she has. She said of her daughter:

“There were things she would tell her teacher that she would never tell me, and I’m comfortable with that.”

Mike Jones, of the Family and Workforce Centers of America, urged businesses and others outside of school to step up and do their part to help solve the dropout problem as well.

“I think the community is the biggest aspect that is missing,” he said.

Suarez chronicles Latino American history

In an interview before the broadcast, Suarez talked about his new book, “Latino Americans,” and how the dropout problem for that segment of society is particularly difficult to tackle.

Though the Latino class that will be heading to college this year is the largest entering class ever, he said that the milestone is not completely good news because their dropout rate is too high and their completion rate for college is too low.

And, he added, with Latinos projected to be one-third of the nation’s teen population by the year 2030, the effort to raise their high school graduation rate takes on new urgency.

The problem, as he has noted elsewhere, stems from a complicated matrix of causes: schools in impoverished areas, funded largely by property taxes that are too low, staffed by teachers who might not be the most talented and emanating an atmosphere that parents with limited education may not find too welcoming.

“It’s not because of a lack of desire,” Suarez said of the struggling state of many schools in Latino neighborhoods, “but because of a lack of means.”

As long as schools rate teachers on the success of their students on standardized tests, he noted, teachers with seniority may be able to use their tenure to be placed in a less challenging atmosphere.

“Veterans opt out,” he said. “So the kids who need the most experienced teachers get the least experienced teachers.”

If families need additional income to makes ends meet, Suarez said, education may not be valued as highly as it should be.

“A lot of families are really just making it,” he said. “The idea that a young adult is going to stay out of the workforce is a hard sell. You have to convince them of the long-term value of a short-term sacrifice.”

That view affects girls in particular, he said, because often the way they earn a living is not seen as important.

“The view is not a careerist view,” Suarez said. “It’s just work at some job to bring in income.”

Between the challenges at home and the challenges at school, he said, Latino families can feel particularly disadvantaged if they want to visit their children’s school and get more involved. Between a language barrier and a school experience that might not be looked back on fondly, adults often don’t feel very much at home.

“They just feel alienated,” Suarez said. “Schools have to be more welcoming, and this is at a time when they also want more security. The front door is less penetrable. They don’t want to let in just anyone from off the street. Things are working at cross purposes.”

Suarez said he had moderated similar education discussions in Albuquerque, Las Vegas and New York City, and though the local issues and local populations may differ, the general problems are pretty much the same.

He noted the great paradox of how many businesses profit from the labor of Mexicans and other Latinos, but at the same time their presence is too often the target of resentment.

That general negativity toward immigrants comes out regularly, Suarez said, particularly on social media such as Twitter. When a native of Syracuse, N.Y., whose family comes from India was crowned Miss America Sunday night, it didn’t take long for racial slurs to show up online.

“Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you,” read one.

Suarez said the outbursts were reminiscent of when Marc Anthony – who was born in New York City – was slammed by some for singing “God Bless America” at this year’s baseball All-Star Game.

Unaware of the controversy at first, he later responded this way:

“Let’s get this straight. I was born and raised in New York. You can’t get more New York than me.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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