Class Conscious: St. Louis educators are desperately seeking ways to get kids back in school

Lamont White was two months into his junior year at Normandy High School when he dropped out.

"I had a lot of issues with people," he remembers. "I got into fights. I beat up other people. My family needed money. My mom's a single parent. I had to start making money. Working part-time wasn't efficient. That pretty much boils it down."

The summer before he quit school, White started his own landscaping business; he worked mostly in Ladue. When the weather got cold, business dried up, and he started hustling pot and crack. When he left Normandy, he says, no one noticed.

Kristi Sobbe is an advocate and cheerleader for the kids at Covenant House.
Jennifer Silverberg
Kristi Sobbe is an advocate and cheerleader for the kids at Covenant House.


"The teachers acted like they cared," he says, "but when I'd ask for help, the teacher would tell me to pay attention and ask another classmate. My mom didn't say nothing when I dropped out," he continues, shaking his head. "She had issues. She had a lot of issues. She would go nuts. I wasn't really standing for it. I got fed up and left. I still helped out because of my brother and sister. They couldn't take care of themselves. I bought stuff for them, food and stuff they could use."

White gave up dealing a year after leaving school. "I made a living, but not a very honest one," he says. "It was demeaning. Before, I had morals. Then...." With his hands, he mimes scattering a pile of cards. He checked into rehab to get clean. "I never smoked crack. I saw what people would do for crack. But pot is natural. Indians do it, so it must be all right."

White is twenty years old now. He has wide-set eyes, close-cropped hair and a sly sense of humor. He says he'd someday like to start a company that sells fresh fruit and humanely raised beef. Last month, he took the GED and started looking for work as a cook. He lives at Covenant House, a nonprofit agency in north St. Louis that provides shelter and services for homeless and abandoned young people.

He's not sorry he left school. "It is what it is. I'm not sure where [school] would have led me. I would have got my diploma, but I would have been dealing drugs. There wasn't much support, and I didn't know how to get a job."

Kristi Sobbe, Covenant House's director of advocacy and communications, listens intently to White's story. After he leaves the room, she shakes her head sadly. "Nobody cared. I find that so disturbing."

In the United States, one student drops out of high school every nine seconds. On average dropouts earn $10,000 less per year than workers with high school diplomas. Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, be on government assistance, suffer poor health and go to prison.

"Dropout isn't an urban phenomenon," says Stephanie Krauss, a St. Louis social worker who plans to open up a charter school for dropouts next year. "It's all over, rural as well as urban."

Last month, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported that 22 percent of the students in St. Louis City schools dropped out last school year — nearly double the dropout rate for 2006-07.

The numbers don't tell the whole story. "That's just the rate for one year," says Robbyn Wahby, Mayor Francis Slay's education policy advisor. She calculates that if the dropout rate continues at the same pace, more than half of the students who started ninth grade this year will be gone by graduation.

"I wish I knew why the dropout rate goes up," admits Sue Wagener, the executive director of Covenant House, "but I honestly don't know. It's a multitude of problems from the top on down."

The students at Doors to Success, a GED program in Florissant, say there are plenty of good reasons to leave.

"School's a bad environment," says Diangelo Uno. "There's dope, weed, guns, fighting."

"Girls put razor blades under their tongues to get past the metal detectors," reports India Lenard.

"If you've got life problems," says C.J., "you can't think about life and concentrate on school. It messes with your mind."

Says Wahby: "Low expectations are a big problem. If you're poor, if your mom's not educated, if you're from a single-parent family, you already know where you're headed."

Kids without dependable home lives often find themselves switching schools frequently, either because they end up in foster care or because they move from house to house, staying with whichever relatives will take them in. Each school district has its own set of requirements. Starting at a new school, a student may find that he or she has lost credits and is even further away from graduation.

"The new schools don't have transcripts or good school information," says Julie Reed, director of community services at Epworth Children and Family Services in Webster Groves. "They make kids repeat classes they've already taken."

Not all students drop out by their own doing. Andi Boyd, a case manager at Doors to Success, refers to these kids as "push-outs."

"There are all these zero-tolerance policies for violence, breaking rules, fighting," Boyd explains. "It doesn't matter who started it — you're gone. Or if a kid's only been to school a handful of days because of a violent living situation. No one has talked to him about missing school, except for the counselor who says, 'You don't have enough credits, you're not going to graduate on time, you might as well drop out.'"

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