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THE BOOK: In Search of the Last Dropout

We can stop the dropout epidemic.

A growing consensus of educators and social service providers is rallying behind a solution that works. The purpose of this book is to describe that solution, and show how Americans at every level of society – local leaders desperate to stop the hemorrhaging of youth from their school system, foundation heads and corporate CEOs equally determined to put their money and influence to work in this vital cause, and of course the parents and teachers of these students – can come together and stop the epidemic.

A million dropouts, or two million, or three, is an outrageous tragedy.&nbsp; But even <EM>one</EM> young person abandoned to a life with no future is equally tragic, equally unacceptable.&nbsp; Our collective goal must be a 21st century America in which, at long last, we have seen the last dropout.

“Educators and policymakers have been reluctant (or unable) to make the drastic changes needed in the way schools are organized and operated. They’ve failed to transform the existing conventional schools into learning centers that would attract and serve the minority, immigrant, and poor students who populate our cities....[They] may be starting to realize that they are not in the school business, they’re in the education business; they need to value their students more than their schools and do whatever it takes to provide them the educational opportunities they need and deserve. Every year of futile tinkering consigns millions of youngsters to a bleak future.”
– Ronald A. Wolk, Teacher magazine, December 2006

Who will be the last dropout? The last American youth who doesn’t make it through our public school system?

Will it be Marcy? She lives with her mother, her grandmother, and her three siblings in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Shaw has had its ups and downs over the years – the riots of 1968 took their toll on the community, as did the crack plagues and crime waves of the 1980s and 1990s. Still, it’s a neighborhood with a long, proud history, and Marcy’s mother believes there are a lot of worse places to raise your children. She has a full-time job at the local grocery store, but it pays only minimum wage and the family income is well below the poverty level. And lately, Marcy hasn’t been well – the usual childhood ailments, but also some worrisome concerns about potential asthma. Will Marcy be the last dropout? She’s only two years old now, so it’s hard to say.

Will it be Jaime? His family lives in Las Vegas, but their life is a different kind of gamble. Like a surprising number of youth in Las Vegas and Clark County, Jaime is homeless. His parents, his five siblings and Jaime move from shelter to shelter, relative to friend – and spend a lot of time sleeping rough under the Nevada stars. Jaime is five, and ready to enroll in the public school system. I wonder where he’ll be doing his homework.

Or perhaps the last dropout will be Linda, whose family has lived in the same rural North Carolina county for generations. No one in that family has ever graduated from high school – there’s always been work on the farm and in the nearby mills as soon as a child is old enough to hold a job. Education is all very well, but every dollar is needed just for the family to get by. In the new century, though, work opportunities for non-graduates are drying up as the county’s economy changes. Seven-year-old Linda is going to need a new vision for her future – and some very practical help achieving it.

When will we see the last dropout? No one knows, of course, other than to say, “Not in this generation.” But we can say this: Young people will stop dropping out of school when they receive the community support and resources they need to learn, stay in school, and graduate prepared for life.

They will stop dropping out when we admit that our country doesn’t have a “youth problem” – we have an adult problem. We – the adults, including parents, who have a stake in the community’s children – have not succeeded in weaving a safety net of support that will keep kids safe, healthy and motivated. The business community in particular has not yet committed its energy and expertise to champion the connection of resources with schools. Nor has America modeled the kind of caring community that can serve as an inspiration and a source of hope for young people. All the “school reform” in the world will not accomplish this. It is not about better teachers, better schools, more money. It is about hope.

My colleagues and I have spent the past 30 years developing an antidote to the dropout epidemic. This is the good news I want to share with you in this book: There is a cure for the dropout epidemic. It is at work in hundreds of communities. It will work in your community too.

The Last Dropout is about a journey that began in Harlem in the 1960s, and took us to Wall Street, to Atlanta, and ultimately to the White House. We were “street workers,” trying to help young people who had already dropped out to return to school and get their diplomas. Over time, we realized it was useless to keep bailing out the basement unless we also turned off the tap of potential dropouts, and that meant working inside the public school system. The Communities In Schools organization, founded in 1977 originally as Cities In Schools, was the result. CIS now reaches more than one million young people and their families annually, in more than 3,400 schools. These kids are chronically underserved – young people who would fall far below the national average for every measure of student success. Yet CIS-tracked students are staying in school and graduating prepared for life. Why? What makes the difference?

The key principles in The Last Dropout were not developed in a think tank or a graduate school. Our work with kids and families has benefited enormously from the research and documentation of the academic community. But I do want to make clear that most of the lessons in this book were learned through first-hand experience, from the ground up, by sitting down and breaking bread with families, students, teachers, and community members, as well as business and government leaders.

Similarly, my hat is off to our dedicated American educators, and this book in no way means to disparage their efforts. The school reform movement has generated important gains for kids: Educators have revised curricula to emphasize research-based strategies and set high standards for student achievement. Policy makers have created legislation such as No Child Left Behind, which endorses these high standards for all children, recognizing that every child can learn, regardless of class, color or place of origin. And we’ve invested a great deal of innovation and creativity into the governance of schools, holding them accountable for their students’ progress.

So, both the content of education – the curricula, the pedagogical strategies – and the form of education – school management and governance – are the subject of intense reform efforts. What’s missing, though, is what I call the “third side of the triangle” – the community component that will meet the non-academic needs of children. To put it simply, it’s pretty hard to concentrate on your 3rd grade reading achievement test if your bedroom has no heat and you need glasses, or you go to school every day scared and hungry, or you’re distracted by family problems.

I’ve said that the dropout epidemic is also a justice issue, and I want to emphasize that again. How we respond to it will determine whether the United States becomes a permanently divided nation of those who make it and those who do not. Is that the kind of world we want our children to inherit? A world divided between gated communities and prisons, between winners and losers? I promise you, the prospect will be bleak, no matter which side of the fence you’re on. We simply cannot continue on a path that produces such drastic economic and human inequity.