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Detroit Tackles Dropout Crisis By Engaging Students, Parents

November 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called Detroit, where four out of 10 children don't graduate from high school, "arguably, the worst school district in the country." Hari Sreenivasan and Detroit Public Television report on how the city's public schools are tackling poor graduation rates.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the high school dropout problem.

Over the next 18 months, the NewsHour and other public media partners are examining the consequences of, and solutions for, one of this country’s most pressing education issues. The project is called American Graduate.

Tonight, a look at Detroit, where four out of 10 children don’t graduate. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called it “arguably the worst school district in the country.” But he’s also said he’s encouraged by new efforts to improve the schools.

NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan reports on some of those efforts in this co-production with Detroit Public Television.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s another morning at Cody High School in Detroit, and teachers like Antonio Baker know that, for some of their students, just getting here is a victory.

ANTONIO BAKER, Medicine and Community Health Academy, Cody Small Schools: I had a young man who came in the classroom. He was really upset and he was just lashing out. He had, like, little dried-up blood on his uniform.

So I asked him, you know, what’s going on?

He was like, well, Mr. Baker, I am sorry for cussing everybody out, but last night, my mother stabbed me and she kicked me out of the house, and I slept in an abandoned house.

But this kid still got up and came to school the very next day. He could have stayed out there, he could have been in the street, but he came to school.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The economic downturn has exacerbated Detroit’s long, slow decline. The situation outside and inside the classroom has become so grim in places, parents are taking their kids elsewhere. The district, which includes 130 schools, is already shrinking — 66,000 kids started school this year. That number is down 10 percent from the year before.

In fact, a new statewide school district is scheduled to take over the lowest performing 5 percent of Detroit’s schools. The problem is so severe that the city is tackling it on multiple fronts. Some schools that are not being taken over are being turned around. Nonprofits are stepping in as well.

The United Way supports Cody High and a handful of other schools. Within this one building are five separate schools. The aim? More attention per student.

Teacher Ron Tracy:

RON TRACY, Academy of Critical Thinkers, Cody Small Schools: Instead of having 2,000 kids, eventually, that are kind of lost in the shuffle, we want to have groups of 500 to 600 kids, because most research shows it is not even about the smaller classroom, necessarily. It’s about having 500 or 600 kids that are known. It’s really just about every kid should be known by an adult really well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some teachers here are trying to change how they communicate with parents, by calling home not just when things go bad with students, but also when things are good.

MICHELLE SHORTER, Medicine and Community Health Academy: I’m calling to tell you that Michelle did an excellent job today in class.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michelle Shorter calls it her sunshine phone calls.

MICHELLE SHORTER: I decided to make a phone call to say that Johnny actually got it today. So, after the parent was already upset, and what did they do, what did Johnny do now? And I said, well, Johnny actually got it today, and I have been working on him with this concept, and he got it, and he raised his hand and he got the answer right. And I wanted to call home and let you know that, so that you could praise him at home, and I have praised him here, so that we can maybe get some more of this type of behavior from him.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Every instructor will tell you that parental support from home is crucial to a child’s interest in education, to a child making it to graduation.

But, sometimes, the parents are facing their own challenges, and in need of their own support. Sharon Kilgore has two daughters. She remembers one of her worst days. Her husband had just gone to jail, she lost her job, and she broke down crying in the unemployment office.

SHARON KILGORE, parent: It was just an unbearable, like, cry. It was heartbreaking for me, and all I thought about was my girls and just trying to make sure that they were going to be all right, trying to make sure that they didn’t miss a beat.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She turned to the Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit that provides support for parents and students. The agency is there for them when they need it to decrease dropouts, increase graduates and reconnect parents with their children’s education.

SHARON KILGORE: They empower me to know how to deal with the teachers when there’s an issue, how to deal with — if Angela’s GPA is not where I want it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: DPN provides career counseling, workshops on financial literacy, leadership skills, or even occasional food baskets, whatever the parent needs.

YOLANDA EDDINS, Detroit Parent Network: And one of the things that we realize is that you can’t change sometimes a whole community, but you can change and influence how a family functions in that community.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yolanda Eddins, a director at DPN, says they have resource centers established at eight Detroit public schools, but even with phone calls, emails and texting, there is no substitute for someone coming to visit. A parental coach stops by the Kilgore home every week with the latest information on scholarships, schools and tests.

WOMAN: She can send it to up to 10 colleges for free.

YOLANDA EDDINS: We work directly with the parents, because we believe that if they become that nagger, that natural nagger, asking the kids, did they do their homework, how is it going in school, when are you going to take your ACT test, let’s get this paperwork done, let’s apply for some scholarships, it makes college more of a reality for children.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The idea of college as a reality was slipping away for Katelynn Morris of Romeo High School. In one year, she had lived in four different foster homes, and she felt lonely and depressed.

KATELYNN MORRIS, Romeo High School: Freshman year, my grades started slipping really bad, and I was like, there’s no point in even doing it. I can’t bring my grades up. It’s not going to happen. There’s no point in even trying anymore.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Her school didn’t give up on her. Instead, teachers saw her risk of dropping out and doubled down. One of the key ways to stop a dropout is to identify them early.

Volunteer coordinator Kelly Carson says Katelynn had a natural interest in giving back, so the school got her involved. Here, she’s making blankets as a part of Project Linus, which gives them to seriously ill children.

KELLY CARSON, Romeo High School: The kids that volunteer the most are the kids that really have the least. And I think they just know — know what it’s like when somebody does something nice for them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Principal Michael Kaufman says, along with making sure kids are getting the academic attention they need, increasing their engagement with school pays off.

MICHAEL KAUFMAN, Romeo High School: A lot of our initiatives are really focused on engagement in school, about building connections, about relevance. Relationship is extremely important, and to make sure that kids feel connected, so that when they come to school, it is someplace that they want to be.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Katelynn’s case, it seems to be working. She says, along with the volunteer program, she is now involved with the Key Club, teen court, and even the marching band.

KATELYNN MORRIS: The more clubs you join, the more close friends you have, which helps you through whatever you’re going through.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In this process, Katelynn is also an example of what’s possible through a statewide initiative known as the Superintendent’s Dropout Challenge, a way to build an early warning and intervention system.

Each school identifies 10 to 15 kids at risk of dropping out. They’re selected based on their ABCs.

LEISA GALLAGHER, Michigan Department of Education: You have got trouble in attendance, or you have got trouble in behavior, or you have got trouble in course proficiency, and we remember that as the ABCs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Leisa Gallagher coordinates the Dropout Challenge for Michigan. She says this simple idea is catching on.

LEISA GALLAGHER: We launched it in July. In October, 1,100 buildings took the challenge. Forty percent of all elementary buildings in the state took it — 20 percent of all the middle schools, and 40 percent of all the high schools took it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Including the schools at Cody High, which are not just part of the Superintendent’s Challenge, but also part of the Detroit Parent Network.

Regardless of how many programs, initiatives and support structures available, teachers know that keeping their kids in the classroom, and getting them to graduation, requires a tremendous amount of work.

TONYA RAYE, Academy of Public Leadership, Cody Small Schools: Teaching is not just 8:00-3:00. It’s whenever the last kid goes home. I have been here some nights until 7:30. I have taken — every day, I’m taking someone home. They don’t have bus fare, “I need a ride,” or they just need to talk. And so it’s a sacrifice. It’s a lot of sacrifice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A sacrifice that will pay off on graduation day.

MARGARET WARNER: American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.