Chicago student gets a transfer to nowhere

July 20, 2011

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(WBEZ/Bill Healy)
Chicago students are withdrawn from their high schools without a definite seat in an alternative school.

Schools are on summer break, and this has been a long summer for a boy named Davonte McMullen. He’s been out of school since March.  That’s when his mom signed papers for him to transfer out of his high school—she thought—to an alternative school.

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I’m telling you about Davonte McMullen because he’s now among an ocean of dropouts in Chicago— 50,000 kids, give or take—another drop in the steady drip, drip of kids who leave.

I’m also telling you about Davonte because he really didn’t have to be a dropout—that’s what Davonte says, that’s what the principal at his former school says. It’s what his mom, Tamika Parker, says.

The way she tells it, officials at his high school suggested he might be better off somewhere else.

PARKER: They kept pressuring me and pressuring me, calling me, telling me that …I need to hurry up and come sign some papers.  And I’m like, ‘What type of papers?’  And they wouldn’t really tell me what kind of papers they was until I got there.

They were withdrawal papers. Davonte was in the middle of his junior year.

PARKER: They said that Davonte was turning 18, and basically they needed him to be out of the school… If he didn’t, he’d fall behind, so they thought of him going to an alternative school.

Now, Davonte’s regular school—Chicago Academy High School on the northwest side— disputes this whole version of events. They say Davonte suggested on his own he should leave.  They say they’d been working with him and his mom on improving his reading, his behavior, his attendance.

How ever Davonte ended up leaving, the point is this: When he showed up at the alternative school listed on his withdrawal papers, he couldn’t get in. He was told the same thing thousands of kids are told every year at these schools: There are no seats. Kids are picked from a very long waiting list just four times a year.

That left Davonte’s mom with this situation last April:

PARKER: Now every school I call, they’re not taking him. It’s like, that’s not right because he at home not doing anything when he can be at school learning—now it’s really making him fall behind because he’s at home now.

LOPEZ: If we are going to advise the students that they need to go to an alternative setting, then that alternative setting needs to have the capacity to serve the students. Because it’s like selling something that you don’t have. That’s bad business.

Daisy Lopez is principal at Westside Holistic Leadership Academy. That’s the alternative school Davonte’s papers said he’d be transferring into.Lopez believes in alternative schools. They serve kids who are far behind in credits and are getting older—but still want a diploma.

There are only 5,500 alternative high school seats in Chicago—nowhere near enough to meet the demand. If the principal or a counselor from Davonte’s school would have called Lopez, she would have told them that.

LOPEZ: If I don’t have seats they cannot transfer the kids here.
LUTTON: And do you ever have a time when you have no waiting list? 
LOPEZ: No, we always have a waiting list. Always. Every single quarter, every single month. So we cannot just take a kid and just jump the waiting list.

Typically, kids moving from regular high schools to alternative schools already have a fragile connection to school. They’re not good at it, they have attendance problems, they live in neighborhoods full of negative distractions. These are the kids we are setting free to navigate a system where the odds are terrible. Sometimes they leave their regular high schools without any more than a list of alternative schools and their addresses.

That’s not true across the board-- one south side principal has even driven students to the alternative school, to make sure they get there and are enrolled without issue.

But Jennifer Vidis, who oversees alternative schools for CPS, says the district recognizes there’s a hand-off problem.

VIDIS: A student should be counseled into a school before they’re released by another one. Because you always run the risk of once a student is out of school—that they won’t go back. And, they’re losing time, they’re losing instructional time, and falling further behind.

Vidis’ office is working on protocols that all schools will have to follow. And significantly, the district is doing something about its paltry supply of alternative options. It’s currently soliciting proposals to add dozens more campuses to serve dropouts. That would more than double the number of alternative seats in the city, with the first opening by fall 2012.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he wants tackle the dropout crisis. The school that let Davonte go is run by the Academy of Urban School Leadership—a favorite of Emanuel’s. Erin Clarkin is principal there.

CLARKIN: We won’t transfer a kid—especially an on-track kid, and this kid was on-track to graduate in five years. We won’t hand off a kid unless we know there’s somewhere for the kid to go. Because then we’re just setting the kid up for dropping out. And we don’t want that. Nobody wants that.

Clarkin signed Davonte’s withdrawal papers.  She wishes he would have talked to her when he couldn’t get in to an alternative school. She would have re-enrolled him—and still would. She called his family multiple times after WBEZ brought his situation to light. Davonte says he doesn’t want to go back to Chicago Academy.

It turns out there’s no penalty for schools when kids fall through the cracks the way Davonte did. In fact, Davonte won’t show up as a dropout this year. CPS officials confirm that students who leave after mid-January aren’t included in a school’s one-year dropout rate.

That might explain why schools would allow kids—advise them, even—to withdraw in the middle of the second semester, without any regard for the enrollment cycles at the schools they’re transferring to. And at a point when students will almost certainly lose any credits they’re working on.

Davonte can sense that’s not right.

DAVONTE: I just wish I could have finished my whole junior year off.  And like, next year, by the time my senior year come, I could have just transferred, and I could have been on track to graduate, then I would have been out of there.

Last week, Davonte’s name came up for a seat at Westside Holistic Leadership Academy.  He can start school in September. Everyone hopes he will.