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

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.

"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.'"

"Do you have to be an angel to have someone looking out for your best interests?" Reed asks angrily.

"I feel bad for teachers," Wagener says. "They have to deal with 35 kids — some kids who have ADHD and haven't been diagnosed or are in the early phases of mental illness. They have to deal with all these behavioral issues. Three-quarters of the kids didn't eat breakfast. There are kids who have to work after school and parent their siblings and get no sleep. So how are they supposed to do their homework?"

The two security monitors in Terry Houston's office at Roosevelt High School show various corridors and exits around the four-story school building near Tower Grove Park. When Houston first became principal two years ago, the screens were inundated with images of students loitering or fighting.

"There were 38 known gangs in the building," Houston recalls. "Attendance was less than 60 percent. There were eight to ten fights a day, and test scores were low. Today there are no gangs, there's an 84 to 87 percent attendance rate, and test scores are improving. We put together a vision of kids who want to be educated. We had to change their mindset and make them realize an education is important."

But not all is rosy at Roosevelt. The school still has the third-highest dropout rate in the city, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Students aren't allowed to bring textbooks home because the administration can't afford to replace any that become lost.

Already this semester, 85 students have left Roosevelt. Houston doesn't consider them all dropouts. "They've just never shown up," he says. "Some kids are so transient. They could be here today and at Beaumont tomorrow." The St. Louis Public School district has no way to track students who switch schools; many don't have Social Security numbers or any other kind of identification.

There are, however, some signs of improvement. On this Monday afternoon in December, the monitors in Houston's office are quiet. When Houston hears a noise in the hallway, he picks up the phone and gets on the school's PA system to declare the halls a no-walk zone, meaning no one can leave the classroom for the rest of the period.

The burly 50-year-old principal has made himself a familiar presence around his school. Every day he greets the students as they come in, patrols the cafeteria at lunchtime and waits outside while they board the buses to go home.

This year the district hired four attendance monitors. "They're like miracle workers," says Houston. "They go to students' homes and find out why the child is not at school." Houston has also instituted a no-tolerance policy for fighting: two fights and the student is dispatched to an alternative school.

Houston has been trying to involve the parents and the larger community in his plan to improve Roosevelt by showing the students that adults care about them. Every May the school hosts a Day of Love, a big barbecue with food donated by Schnucks and speeches from community leaders.

The Thursday before Thanksgiving was Shadow Day. Houston invited all the parents to come to Roosevelt to follow their children through a school day, and then Houston spoke to them about their roles in the students' lives. Only 100 parents out of a 1,300-student population showed up. Still, Houston considered the day a success.

The mayor's office has also been doing its part to fight the dropout crisis through community involvement. Last January, Wahby convened a Youth Development Task Force comprised of members of different city agencies, including health, juvenile justice and foster care, to discuss how to keep kids in school.

"Just focusing on kids out of school is missing the boat," Wahby explains. "It's like a conveyer belt, and you can't just start at ninth grade. We want to set benchmarks to make sure students have success at all levels. Preschool has an impact on high school graduation rates."

Wahby envisions a future where all the city agencies that deal with young people will be connected. "A teacher can check the computer and see what happened to a kid overnight," she says. "Police can check school attendance. A social worker can tell the others if the kid has a parent in jail. We're after everyone to do what they can to improve access to post-secondary education."

Houston has already begun encouraging his teachers to try new methods that address different learning styles. "We want to get the kids engaged," says assistant principal Joe Kenney. "The old model of rows and lectures is changing."

But Houston doesn't have much luxury to ponder educational theory. "In the district office, they have ideas and formulas, but they're not in front of the kids," he says. "In the trenches, there are problems they can't even imagine. I've got enough work here at Roosevelt High School."

Stephanie Krauss stopped going to school when she was fifteen. Her mother was an alcoholic. Her father was rarely home. She had three younger brothers to take care of. By ninth grade, she had started drinking.

After Krauss ran away from home, a substance-abuse counselor guided her to a rehab program in Florida where Krauss dried out. Within three years, she earned a high school diploma and a college degree and had moved to Phoenix to join Teach for America.

Today, Krauss is 23. She earned her master's degree in social work from Washington University last May. Since then, she's been working on an ambitious plan to start up Shearwater High School, a charter school geared toward students who, in her words, "have real academic potential and were previously discouraged from engaging that potential." Shearwater graduates will get high school diplomas, not GED certificates.

Shearwater won't be St. Louis' first school for dropouts. In 2007, two outside companies, Big Picture Learning from Rhode Island and Can! Academy from Texas, opened charter schools here. Kottmeyer Big Picture High School on South Grand Boulevard survived its first year. Can! St. Louis did not. Its executives admit, in retrospect, that they opened the school before they knew much about education in Missouri.

That is not a mistake Krauss plans to repeat. Shearwater will not open until August of 2010. For now, Krauss is raising money, studying successful nonprofits and working on a master plan. "We're still in the pre-operations phase," she says. But she's started scouting locations.

When Shearwater opens, it will have 75 students, and will eventually grow to 180. It will be small enough for students to get individual attention, but large enough to serve as a model for other schools.

Krauss' vision for Shearwater involves individual curricula tailored to each student's interests: "If you're interested in music production, for example, we can determine what skills can come from this interest and help you find employment later. Do you need math credits? How can this interest help you learn math?"

Other people in St. Louis who work with high school dropouts have been watching Shearwater's progress. "It might work," says Sue Wagener of Covenant House. "But her vision is geared toward kids who read at an eighth-grade level. Eighty-two percent of our kids read at middle-school level or below."

Krauss, however, is sure she'll have no trouble filling her classrooms once the school opens. "There are too many," she says, "too many across the country."

Shearwater, Krauss notes, is named after a bird native to Australia. "It has no permanent nest," she explains. "It can fly farther and live longer than most other seabirds and adapt to any environment. Our name is a recognition of survival. We're saying, 'You survived, you're a fighter, we believe you can persevere and succeed in life.'"

On a frigid Monday morning, sixteen students wait in a small yard outside Northminster Presbyterian Church in Florissant. At precisely nine o'clock, Andi Boyd, the case manager at Doors to Success, throws open the classroom door. It's time for GED class.

"Come on in!" she calls. Boyd, a cheerful woman in a jaunty tweed cap, greets each one. "Nice hair, you're lookin' good. Ooooh, I really like that jacket!"

The students pick up their individual study folders, shuffle to their seats at various tables set up around the room and wait for Boyd and their teacher, Aisha Wright, to call the class to order. They will be working here until noon. Some have been attending GED classes five days a week for more than a year.

"A lot of students think it's easier to take the GED," says Epworth's Julie Reed. "But if they have significant delays, especially in math, they'll go to GED class as intensively as they go to school. For them, taking the GED is like climbing a mountain."

"Forty percent of high school graduates can't pass the GED," says Boyd. "It's a tough test. I wouldn't pass."

For these students, though, there is no other option. In Missouri, the maximum age for high school is 21. Some have fallen so far behind that they wouldn't be able to graduate in time. Others never had a proper foundation in literacy or math and work at an eighth-grade level or below.

Doors to Success and Covenant House provide alternative GED programs, tailored for young people between 16 and 24. "Regular adult basic education is for any age, 16 to 85," Boyd explains. "It's very unstructured. There's no monitoring or extra motivation. If kids between 16 and 24 were that motivated, they wouldn't have dropped out."

In the alternative programs, classes meet regularly and students have individualized study plans. (This can sometimes become frustrating because everyone must wait his or her turn for the teacher's attention.) Case managers go to extraordinary lengths to make sure everyone shows up. "Last week I went to a kid's house and knocked on the door until he got out of bed," Boyd recalls.

The adults who run these programs are generally skeptical of government programs that are supposed to encourage students to stay in school.

"No Child Left Behind is a good idea with good intentions, but it hasn't been implemented properly," says Wagener.

Lamont Kollore, a case manager at Doors to Success, offers a more blunt assessment: "No Child Left Behind is full of bogus misconceptions. The schools promote kids to the next grade because they need numbers. They keep the kids for four years and then push them out. We assist in challenging the kids' belief systems and reshaping the way they think. We want to integrate them into mainstream society."

The alternative programs introduce students to art and culture, in the form of visits to St. Louis' free museums. They help students find employment. Social workers take their kids to interviews and job fairs and sometimes even provide clothes; at least one boy in Doors to Success has a wardrobe culled from Boyd's husband's closet.

Funding remains precarious. Covenant House moved into a new building last April, but Doors to Success has been gypsy-like for most of its existence; the Florissant location (there are also branches in Maplewood and Spanish Lake) just moved to Northminster Presbyterian this year. The church donates space and facilities in exchange for payment of utilities. Consequently, the GED classroom is very cold, and the students keep their jackets on most of the time.

"There are small amounts of money set aside for these programs," says Tom Fee, program manager of St. Louis County Youth Programs, which oversees Doors to Success. "The grants are drying up. It's catch as catch can."

Because the students are over the dropout age of sixteen, participation in the GED programs is voluntary, and most students hear about them through word of mouth. Doors to Success currently has a waiting list for its 30-member class.

Brittney Johnson began studying for her GED at Covenant House a year and a half ago at the urging of a friend, Tanisha Howe, known as Pooh, who was already in college at Harris-Stowe State University. For two years, the nineteen-year-old Johnson ignored the entreaties of her mother to return to school, but hearing it from Howe was different. "She was the first person who cared about me," Johnson recalls. "She was like, 'Come on, Brittney, be with me.'"

The adults at Covenant House and Doors to Success see themselves more as coaches and cheerleaders than stern authority figures. They don't have to deal with the same discipline problems that plague schoolteachers; they feel free to interact with students on a more human level.

Johnson believes her problems with school began when she was held back in second grade. Kristi Sobbe, Covenant House's advocacy director who has been listening to her tell her story, impulsively reaches across the table and puts her hand over Johnson's. "I was held back, too!" she says. "While you were talking, I wanted to say, 'Me too!' I wanted to say, 'It'll be OK.'"

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