The key to keeping kids in school

The key to keeping kids in school

By Ellen Ratner   
Photo: Cali4beach via Flickr

(Talk Media News) – This week, the White House announced a plan to keep students in school. The White House is beginning with 10 cities and leveraging taxpayer money by working with private foundations and the Ad Council. This cooperation will work on programs to encourage students to stay in school. This is much needed, and the reasons for this program are numerous.

First, the rate that students drop out or do not finish school on time is 18 percent, or almost one in five students. Secondly, two-thirds of inmates in state prisons have dropped out of high school. One study in 2002 put the mean reading level of death row inmates at a 5.1 grade level.

Bob Balfanz Ph.D., who is consulting with the people at the White House and is a respected expert on this issue, works at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. He has studied this for years and is one of the people responsible for a far-reaching report called, “The Importance of Being in School.” One of the findings in that report is that school absenteeism tends to begin in Kindergarten.

Balfanz also found some students skipped school because “they felt like it,” “overslept” or “wanted to hang out with friends.” These and the other absentee students were away from school at least 10 percent of the time, or about one month of school a year. In addition, because of the demands of living in high-poverty areas, there may be insufficient adult supervision or attention, and a student’s residence might not be secure or stable.

New York has found some pretty creative ways to get students to school. According the report, “The Importance of Being in School,” 30,000 students get wake-up and get-to-school calls from Michael Jordan, Whoopi Goldberg or one of the New York Yankees. Also, 4,000 students have success mentors who interact with them in school and talk to them.

The White House’s goal is to connect students with these kind of mentors in the first two years of the initiative for 259,000 students in the sixth through ninth grades. Hopes are to reach 1 million students in five years.

When the baby boomers were growing up, bullying was a huge issue. Most of us were either bullied or knew someone who was. Today’s bullied students also have no desire to go to school, and the research has shown that they don’t. One young teen I know pursues her education through online homeschooling to avoid the bullying she has experienced at school. Now there is bullying education. That anti-bullying teaching was totally absent back in the mid-century. Although it has made school more pleasant for some students today, it has not reached everyone.

When I attended the White House briefing and listened to the questions other reporters asked, I was surprised at the absence of one thing – creativity. Yes, some of the dropouts have severe learning disabilities or other reasons they cite for not going to school. I am reminded of a story about a psychiatric patient treated by Jay Haley in Massachusetts. The patient was catatonic and moved his hands up and down. Jay Haley put sandpaper on this hands and a block of wood between his hands so that his rhythmic motions up and down produced something. Creativity worked even for a patient that had been deemed hopeless.

There are many bored and creative students dropping out of school, but the White House planning and the studies and mentoring data do not support training to encourage students’ creativity and thus keep them in school.

Two students with whom I went to school developed a robot in grade school in the 1960s. They both stayed in school, and their creativity was recognized. One became a traditional lawyer and the other a marijuana/hemp entrepreneur. He now holds a patent for medical marijuana. It was the recognition of the school that kept these two enterprising youths attending school. This is something the press heard little about in the plans the White House has discussed. There have been some good ideas, such as the phone calls and a dance initiative, that keeping students attending classes. School can ruin creativity and squash a young person’s desire to complete their education. Fred Weisman illustrated that point in 1968 with his first edition of the documentary “High School.”

Many of the drop-outs are not mentored or don’t have a champion adult or mentor in their life, but some need that push to unlock their creativity. The White House plan is a good one, but hopefully it will also push the students’ mentors to unlock their creativity and find more reasons to stay in school and participate as good citizens.

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