Thousands of Troubled Students Drop Out Before High School

Thousands of Troubled Students Drop Out Before High School

Mick Dumke

Frederick Lucas was a 15-year-old eighth grader when he dropped out of school a year-and-a-half ago.

“I was always smart, book-wise,” he said, shrugging. “Shit just wasn’t right at home. I’d be sitting in class, wandering off, and end up doing no work. I just wasn’t applying myself. I had too many issues at the time.”

Frederick said his mother struggled with alcohol for most of his life. He transferred schools at least 12 times, moved from house to house and eventually landed at his grandmother’s in Auburn-Gresham on the South Side. He and friends joined a street gang when he was 11. They stayed out late, sometimes hanging out in liquor stores or bars. At times, he carried a gun to school for protection.

A small-built young man with faint sideburns and a goatee, Frederick was failing all his classes in the fall of 1999 at Cecil A. Partee Academic Preparatory Center, 8101 S. LaSalle St., school records show.

Still, he made an impression on Carol Briggs, principal of Partee, one of the district’s nine transition schools for at-risk students who are at least 15 years old. “He was a nice kid,” she said. “He was always smiling, but not academically focused. The girls loved him and a lot of his energy was put into that arena.”

One afternoon, a teacher accused Frederick of harassing a girl in class and asked him to leave the room, Frederick said. He never went back.

Frederick is one of thousands of teenagers who dropped out of the Chicago Public Schools before reaching ninth grade, a joint investigation by The Chicago Reporter and CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform revealed. The publications analyzed data provided by the Chicago Public Schools to the Consortium on Chicago School Research, an independent nonprofit that assesses school reform.

As the elementary dropout rate climbed by 86 percent in the 1990s, the school system has failed to develop programs to help or keep track of those youths. National data, however, suggest elementary school dropouts face even higher risks of poverty and incarceration than those who leave high school early.

“They’ve been the silent dropouts no one really talks about,” said Patricia Preston, director of alternative education for the City Colleges of Chicago. Preston served on the Illinois State Board of Education’s committee on at-risk youth from 1998 to 2000. Chicago’s public schools are overwhelmed by high school dropout rates, she said. “The assumption is that elementary students are graduating, but we’ve known for years … [the dropouts] were there.”

The Reporter/CATALYST investigation found:

* From 1991 to 1999, an average of 1,400 youth each year left Chicago’s public schools in the sixth, seventh or eighth grade.

* Sixteen of every 1,000 elementary students dropped out during the 1999-2000 school year, compared to nine in 1991-1992.

* Elementary dropouts are most likely to be African American. In 1999-2000, for example, 65 percent were black, while African Americans represented 52 percent of the system’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade population. That year, 22 of every 1,000 African American boys dropped out, compared to 18 of every 1,000 black girls, 13 per 1,000 Latinos and 11 of every 1,000 whites.

* By law, children under 16 can return after being dropped from school rolls. But 73 percent of those who left between 1991 and 1995 did not return to the Chicago Public Schools within four years.

While the consortium’s dropout numbers are based on records provided by the Chicago Public Schools, school officials told the Reporter they are inflated. “At the elementary level, we have not had a significant number of students to drop out,” said Blondean Y. Davis, the school system’s chief of schools and regions. She said most students reported as dropouts actually transferred to other school districts, but their former schools did not record the change.

In 1999, Chicago reported 1,222 dropouts from sixth to eighth grade to the state of Illinois, but Davis said the real number is much lower. Still, Davis acknowledged she could provide no accurate, system-wide numbers or estimates of elementary school dropouts–even though the Illinois School Code requires that schools report the correct number and age of all dropouts to the Illinois State Board of Education.

The state code also requires that parents and guardians keep children in school until age 16. But, regardless of age, once a student misses 20 days, Chicago’s public schools can cut them from the rolls. Illinois law defines all such children who have not transferred to other districts as dropouts.

Chicago’s elementary dropout numbers seem “pretty high,” considering that nationwide, students rarely leave school before ninth grade, said Russell Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a national expert on dropouts. About 6 percent of U.S. residents 18 or older have not earned more than an eighth-grade education, according to a March 2000 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Elementary school dropouts typically struggle with academic and personal problems for years before they decide to leave school, Rurnberger said. “It’s really, really sad,” he said. “And it never should happen.”

Once they leave school, they have few This article is the final report of a series focusing on education in Chicago. “Chicago Matters” is an annual public information series initiated and funded by The Chicago Community Trust, Chicago’s community foundation, in collaboration with WTTW, Channel 11; WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio; the Chicago Public Library; and the Reporter. The Reporter’s sister publication, CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, is a special participant this year. For more information on the series, visit options.

“What do they do? Sit around until they’re 16, get involved in criminal activity, get into drugs,” said Preston. “There’s no structured program for them.”

Painful Choices

Elementary dropouts said they left school because they fell behind academically or were distracted by stressful family lives, pregnancy, neighborhood violence or gangs.

School officials said these children aren’t receiving enough guidance at home. Parents and advocates blamed the schools for not engaging students or working with their families.

More young people are being forced to make important life decisions on their own, said Maisha Hamilton-Bennett, executive director of Quality Behavioral Care, a nonprofit social service agency at 7425 S. South Shore Drive. “Children are reacting in predictable ways to the choices given them,” she said.

The Chicago Public Schools are not reaching all their pupils, especially black boys, said Jawanza Kunjufu, an educational consultant and author of “Critical Issues in Educating African American Youth.”

As they move through elementary school, black boys face their teachers’ low expectations, and few of their classes are designed to engage them, said Kunjufu. “If black students can memorize a rap CD in 10 minutes, they could learn the U.S. Constitution.”

In March, 16-year-old Eric Williams dropped out of eighth grade at Carmel B. Harvey Jr. Academic Preparatory Center, 2245 N. McVicker Ave. in Belmont-Cragin. “School ain’t for me,” he said. A polite young man with a shy smile, Eric grew up in Austin on the West Side and joined a street gang when he was 11 or 12, he said. “I wasn’t doing my [school] work. I was hanging out with the big boys.”

Last fall, during his first semester at Harvey, Eric missed 36 days, school records show. He told his mother he was headed for school but then spent the day on the street. When he did go to school, he said, he was bored. He passed gym and computers, but failed reading, math and world studies.

Christina Adams, a teacher’s aide who works full time following up on truants at Harvey, said she visited Eric’s home five times to talk with him and his mother, Denise Williams. On March 23, the school sent a letter to Williams, then working long hours in a clothing store, to tell her Eric was dropped “because of excessive absences.”

“He gave up,” Williams said.

Students who live in communities like Eric’s that suffer from high levels of violence and poverty are often unable to focus on school, said Melissa Roderick, the co-director of the consortium and a professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. “Even fantastic teachers in the best schools in the system can’t engage and can’t be expected to get to these kids because their problems have so much to do with things going on outside the classroom.

Most chronically truant students don’t get enough discipline at home, said David Rodriguez, a social worker at Ames Middle School in Logan Square. Ames, a predominantly Latino school at 1960 N. Hamlin Ave., had 20 students drop out during the 1999 school year, consortium data show.

“You have a generation of parents who dropped out themselves, so they already have a negative attitude toward school,” Rodriguez said. “You call them to come to the school and they say … ‘It’s your job to discipline the students.”‘

But Patricia Lozano, whose son just finished seventh grade at Ames, said teachers and administrators must understand how complicated parents’ lives are and make sure they feel connected. Parents who work long hours may be surprised their children are missing class, she said, speaking in Spanish. Some struggle to motivate their adolescents. Others worry about safety.

“There’s a change when kids get older, to seventh and eighth grade–it’s harder to get them to go to school,” said Lozano, a member of Ames’ Local School Council, an 11-member board of teachers, parents and community residents who oversee the budget and set school policies. Also, “There’s a concern about violence in the neighborhood. Parents feel it’s almost safer for [children] … to stay home.”

No Tracking

Dropping out of school carries a high price. Nationally, 18 percent of workers with less than a year of high school live below the poverty level, compared to 13 percent of those who dropped out later in high school and 7 percent who graduated, according to a 1999 census survey.

And while elementary dropouts were 7 percent of the 1997 U.S. adult population, they were 13 percent of local and county jail inmates and 14 percent of state prison inmates, reports the U.S. Department of Justice.

But Davis said the Chicago Public Schools do not track elementary dropouts systemwide. She insisted the system has few such dropouts and doesn’t need programs for them. “Are there dropouts at these grades? Of course,” said Davis. But “the number does not appear to be what you have previously stated.”

Davis said her staff contacted six of Chicago’s 491 elementary schools in late June, after the Reporter shared its findings. More than 80 percent of students the schools had classified as dropouts were actually transfers, she said. Attendance officers listed them as dropouts although counselors or teachers knew they had transferred, Davis added.

She said she plans to offer schools additional training next year to help them develop a better record-keeping system.

Schools struggle to keep track of missing students because they lack adequate truancy funding and personnel. About 80 of Ames’ 900 students miss classes every day, said Rodriguez, the school’s social worker. As at all elementary schools, Ames’ attendance officer–and some teachers–call to alert parents when their children are absent. After every five unexcused absences, the school sends the parents a certified letter, and a staff member is supposed to talk directly with parents.

But Ames doesn’t have anyone who works full time on truancy, Rodriguez said. “Unfortunately, we can’t catch every kid,” he said. After children accumulate 20 absences, or if the school can’t locate them, Chicago’s policy allows the school to drop the students from its rolls.

The schools’ legal department can also take parents or guardians of truants under 16 to court, according to the Illinois School Code. The misdemeanor charges are punishable by up to $500 in fines and 30 days in jail.

It’s not a course often taken. Jacqueline P. Cox, presiding judge in Municipal District One of the Cook County Circuit Court, said she rarely hears truancy cases and believes they’re best addressed through counseling. “What do you want to do–put a mother behind bars? Then [the students] are really going to miss school.”

In September, the school board will step up efforts to enforce the law, Davis said. “We really don’t want to take the parents into court,” she said. But “there’s really nothing else that we can do.”

Until 1991, the schools had truancy officers in every elementary school, Davis said. The officers were trained by the schools and the Chicago Police Department to visit homes and talk to parents. They also had legal authority to take children to school or families to court. “When they went to your home, they showed you a badge,” she said.

But the board eliminated the positions to save $4 million, according to a 1992 report by CATALYST magazine. In the following school year, 1,408 elementary school children dropped out, up from 825 in 1991, the biggest one-year increase in the 1 990s.

In 1996, the Chicago Board of Education launched the Truancy Outreach Program, which allowed elementary schools to hire parents at $6 to $8 an hour to work part time on truancy prevention. Still, the parent aides lack the authority the truancy officers had, Davis said.

Schools offer troubled youth after-school programs, including sports and arts activities, said Davis. And in August 2000, “student assistants” were hired to help counselors in elementary schools with high caseloads, she said.

Davis said she has asked new board President Michael W. Scott for money to beef up truancy programs. Scott declined to comment for this article, saying he wants to study the issue further.

“There has to be a way to let the local school move faster,” said Ames’ Rodriguez. Currently, when students skip school, “we can’t call the police. We can’t go to trial. Yet it comes back to us–it’s our fault.”

Safety Nets

Since 1995 the Chicago Public Schools have emphasized academic improvement among eighth-graders who are considered at risk of dropping out.

The district now promotes eighth. graders who score at least a 7.2, the national average for seventh-graders in their second month of school, on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, standardized reading, language and mathematics exams.

Those who miss the mark and turn 15 by Dec. 1 are transferred to one of nine academic preparatory centers, where they get help to improve their scores. The centers, opened in 1997, feature intense test preparation, small classes and increased interaction between students and staff, schools officials said. And each school employs a social worker, counselor and at least one truancy prevention aide.

Without the centers, the elementary dropout numbers would be even higher, said Clem Smith, director of Harvey. “Kids learn they have nothing to fear here.”

But these are some of the system’s most discouraged students, lagging a year or two behind peers and suffering from low confidence and personal problems. “In the beginning of the year when they come through the door, you see by the look on their faces that they have no self-esteem,” said Adams, the school’s truancy prevention aide.

“We’re really in a very awkward position,” said David Duvall, an English teacher at Harvey. “You keep kids interested… through teaching strategies, being innovative, doing hands-on work that may well engage them–but will it prepare them for the test?”

In the 1999-2000 school year, 21 percent of the prep centers’ 1,850 students dropped out, consortium data show. The centers accounted for a quarter of all sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade dropouts that year.

Smith said most students who don’t succeed at Harvey never give it a chance. “We know in reality we didn’t drop 60 kids. They dropped themselves.”

Eric Williams said that was true for him.

During the 1999 school year, when Eric was an eighth-grader at Frederick A. Douglas Junior High Academy, 543 N. Waller Ave., his Iowa test scores hovered around the fourth-grade level in reading and sixth-grade in math.

“I took the test in January and I failed it. I took another test in March and I failed that. I took it in August in summer school and I failed that,” Eric said. “They said I was going to Harvey. I was getting frustrated, saying, ‘I ain’t going back.'”

By the time he dropped out of Harvey, Eric was reading at the sixth-grade level. “I guess you get frustrated sitting in the same grade for two or three years in a row,” said his mother, Denise Williams.

Eric blamed himself. “They didn’t want to kick me out. I kicked myself out because I didn’t come.”

The school district has no safety net for youths who drop out of the transitional centers and other elementary schools.

In 1997, the board created the Youth Connection Charter School, an “umbrella” of 25 previously existing alternative schools-most private, some run by the city colleges-to offer high school dropouts a second crack at a diploma.

But most elementary school dropouts are ineligible because the board only funds the programs for 16-to 21-year-olds. Alternative schools don’t have enough staff to help younger students catch up on basic skills and graduation requirements, said Sheila Venson, executive director of Youth Connection.

By state law, candidates for the GED, a high school equivalency diploma, must be at least 17. But in recent years, because of increased demand from younger dropouts, the city colleges system has expanded its GED preparation program to include 16-and 17-year-olds, said Jeff Janulis, dean of adult education at Richard J. Daley College, 7500 S. Pulaski Road.

Still, students “who want to come in and brush up in a couple hours are In for a rude awakening,” said Janulis. “It’s possible, even if it’s an uphill climb, to start at a fifth-grade level and move up. … But I think it’s true that students at a higher level are more likely to complete it.”

Early dropouts also struggle in employment-training programs. Job Corps, a tuition-free residential program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, prepares 16- to 24-year-olds to work in fields like health care and construction. About 15 percent of the roughly 350 students at Chicago’s Job Corps center, 3348 5. Kedzie Ave., didn’t complete ninth grade, according to Lauren Morales, the center’s director.

“Students with absolutely no high school experience have greater challenges even in a program like ours,” she said. “This isn’t a special education facility and we’re not a boot camp.”

Adams said she warns truants they’ll have few options if they leave school. “I tell them, ‘When you wake up and smell the coffee, it won’t have any cream or sugar in it.”

Alternative Opportunities

To reach students at risk of dropping out, schools must help them with their problems both outside and inside the classroom, said the University of California’s Rumberger. “If they have both social and academic problems, they won’t be helped unless you address both.”

But John Long, a professor in the Department of Policy Studies at the University of Iliinois at Chicago’s College of Education, said schools cannot provide all the social support poor youth need. Staff will bum out unless the schools work with community organizations that specialize in counseling and social work, he added. “It’s time to call in the infantry.”

Vulnerable sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders would thrive in the flexible, nurturing environment of an alternative school, said Pa Joof, the principal of Prologue, an alternative school at 1105 W. Lawrence Ave. in Uptown. All 120 of its students are high school dropouts; more than half are black. During the last five years, about 60 percent of Prologue’s graduates have gone on to college, Joof said.

Prologue doesn’t assign letter grades. Students take cultural classes like martial arts, drumming and dance, and meet dally with teachers in small groups.

“We get them comfortable so they can learn,” Joof said.

The Chicago school board does not want to create alternative schools for elementary students, said Davis. “We think that they need more supervision and need to be in a setting that is more structured.”

In June, the Iliinois General Assembly approved the Alternative Learning Opportunities Law, which was then signed by Coy. George H. Ryan. It allocates $1 million for school districts to create programs for fourth- to 12th-grade students “at risk of academic failure … or not graduating from elementary or high school.”

State Rep. William Delgado, who represents the 3rd District on Chicago’s Northwest Side and is a co-sponsor of the bill, said it doesn’t go far enough, especially for elementary students. It “opens up the issue,” he said, “but we have a long way to go.”

Many young people say they need more adults to listen to them and take an interest in their problems. Keochia Alexander, 12, an aspiring entrepreneur who just finished sixth grade at Joshua D. Kershaw Elementary School, 6450 5. Lowe Ave. in Englewood, vowed to stay in school. But she said teachers and principals have to make students feel more enthusiastic about learning.

“If you put too much pressure on kids, they will want to drop out at some point,” she said. “You can go too easy on them, but hollering at them is making it worse.”

Frederick Lucas agreed. While blaming himself for making poor decisions, he wished more of his teachers could have understood him. “I basically raised myself since I was 13, and I feel I’m a man. You talk to me with respect-don’t raise your voice at me,” he said. “You’ve just got to be there and understand kids, talk to them, know what they’re going through.”

Frederick, who is now 17, attends Sullivan House Alternative High School, 8164 S. South Chicago Ave. He said he hopes to become a respected businessman.

“I want to be someone sitting behind a desk in a suit, getting calls, like ‘Mr. Lucas, you got a call on line one.’ Walking into the office, hanging up the jacket to my suit,” he said. “I had to wake myself up. … I did my wrongdoing, but I want to be the one to just turn everything legit.”

Contributing: Elizabeth Duffrin, an associate editor for CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform, and Elizabeth Raap. Joyce C. Armour, Anita Bryant and Danielle Duncan helped research this article.

[Graph omitted]

[Graph omitted]

Most Grade School Dropouts Are Black

During the 1999-2000 school year, African Americans accounted for

52 percent of all sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders in the Chicago

Public Schools, and 65 percent of dropouts that age. Latinos

represented 34 percent of the student body and 26 percent of


1999-2000 population

Asian, Native American 3.4%

White 11%

Black 52%

Latino 33.6%

Note: Table made from pie chart

1999-2000 dropouts

Asian, Native American 1.4%

Black 65%

Latino 26.2%

White 7.5%

Note: “Dropouts” include all sixth, seventh- and eighth-grade

students who were enrolled in Chinago’s public schools in

September of one school year but no longer enrolled the

following September, and who had not transferred to another

school district.

Source: Consortium on Chicago School Research, Chicago Public

Schools; analyzed by The Chicago Reporter.

Note: Table made from pie chart

‘I Was Not Thinking of School’

Some students make it through elementary school, only to drop out on their way to high school.

Yesenia Sotelo is one of them. Her bangs hung in her eyes as she lugged a heavy backpack from class to class one recent spring day at Latino Youth Alternative High School, 2200 S. Marshall Blvd. in the Little Village neighborhood. The 18-year-old freshman said she was back in school for the first time since 1996, when she graduated from Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, 2850 W. 24th Blvd.

Sotelo found out the summer after graduation that she was pregnant. “I didn’t have anyone,” she said. “Nobody talked to me. I never told my mother.”

Late one night, she climbed out of a window in her Little Village home and moved to her boyfriend’s apartment. Her mother was angry, Sotelo recalled. Her father, who had been away working in Mexico, refused to speak to Yesenia for a month after he returned.

When school officials called to find out why she didn’t report to high school, her sister told them she had left the country.

“I was not thinking of school any more,” she said. Her boyfriend, who was 20 and worked full time, wanted her to go back to school, but left the decision up to her. Sotelo said she feared meeting “bad people” on the way to school. “I was scared. …A lot of bad things happened to me.”

She was once attacked at a bus stop, she said, when a man exposed himself and tried to grab her. She got away.

Growing up, Sotelo had a strained relationship with her father, who worked long hours and “was never there for me.” And she recalls that her mother frequently compared her to her oldest sister, who got pregnant at 15. Her mother would say, “Look at your sister, she ruined her life,” and ask if the same thing would happen to her.

Sotelo eventually split up with her boyfriend, she said, because he drank too much. “It made me realize I can’t count on my baby’s father.”

She decided she needed more education–“for my baby, to get my life together.” When she graduates from Latino Youth in 2003, she envisions becoming either a chef or licensed child caretaker. And she has recommendations for Chicago Public Schools officials: The system needs additional “schools and programs for young mothers,” she said: “Some girls don’t have the money to babysit their kids.”

Analyzing Dropouts

This article includes data from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, an independent nonprofit that assesses school reform. The consortium obtained Chicago Public Schools records and tracked every student enrolled in sixth, seventh and eighth grade between 1991 and 1999. Researchers compared the fall enrollments for these grades from year to year to determine which students remained in the Chicago school system, transferred to other districts or simply left the rolls. The last group includes students whose schools categorized them as “dropout,” “lost,” “cannot locate” or “did not arrive.” All such children are defined as dropouts by the Illinois School Code, the state law that governs primary and secondary education.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group