The Dropout Dilemma: Panel Explores Causes And Solutions

(left to right) Mike McIntyre, Deborah Delisle, John Zitzner and David James
(left to right) Mike McIntyre, Deborah Delisle, John Zitzner and David James
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Dropping out occurs to some degree in just about every community, but it's most concentrated in poor, urban school districts. And it was there that a special edition of Ideas, broadcast Monday on 90.3 WCPN and WVIZ Public Television and hosted by Mike McIntyre, was focused.

Kicking off the discussion, panelist David James, Superintendent of Akron Public Schools, pointed out what many consider one of the most obvious factors that lead kids to drop out: their often troubled lives outside of school, growing up in impoverished neighborhoods.

"We're taking the role of parents a lot of time in our schools in order to help our kids be successful, and in some cases it works and in some cases it doesn't,” James said. “The life of the street sometimes is a lot stronger for some of our kids than the life of education and the classroom and trying to provide a better future.”

James said behavioral issues are a widespread cause of Akron's dropout problem, and that's something teachers and administrators can't resolve by themselves. He said while the district takes its own initiative to stem the dropout problem from several angles, he also looks beyond the schools

“It isn't just a school problem, it is a community problem,” he said. “You have to have your job and family services folks involved. You have to have your children's services board, your juvenile court, your mayor... a lot of those folks, and that's typically what we do in Akron.“

John Zitzner, president of Breakthrough Schools, which operates eight k-8 charter schools across Cleveland, cautioned that abject circumstances are no justification for kids not succeeding in school. Breakthrough schools are some of the most highly rated public charter schools in the region.

“We don't have excuses that it's not our fault that the kid isn't learning because of the family situation, because of this or because of that,” he said. “Our job is to educate kids, regardless. our job is to educate that child, get him off to high school and get him off to college, regardless of the family situation or anything they're dealing with. We're a no-excuses culture.”

Zitzner conceded that “no excuses” at one time meant zero tolerance at Breakthrough, but that policy has since softened. He, David James and fellow panelist Deborah Delisle, Assistant Secretary of Education for the Obama administration, all agreed that expulsion is not necessarily the best response to bad behavior.

“When you are suspended even once for discipline, by the time you are in fourth grade the likelihood of you dropping out of high school just escalates.”

The discussion revealed some novel approaches to engaging students. Randall McShepard, Vice President of Communications at RPM International in Medina, was in the audience, and told of a program to bring successful African American men into an all-minority all-boys school.

“Kids, having a chance to talk to NASA scientists and doctors and entrepreneurs and lawyers, it really changes the way they think about their future, McShepard said.

“Unfortunately so many of them grow up in communities where they just don't see what success looks like. But to actually have a chance to meet successful individuals who look like them and come from similar backgrounds I think makes a significant difference.”

Assistant Secretary Delisle had the last word in the program. She said effective teaching is one of the most valuable tools in persuading kids to stay in school.

“It's been shown time and time again that a highly effective teacher can actually dismiss any of the baggage that kids come into that classroom with, and can actually eradicate the impacts of poverty on learning for that student,” she said.

That may be true, at least sometimes. But teachers still need all the help they can get.

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