Luring Chicago dropouts back to school, one doorstep at a time

Typically, students who leave CPS are just gone. Rahm Emanuel wants to change that.

August 25, 2011

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Harper High School principal Leonetta Sanders stops by the home of a student who hasn't been coming to school.
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To get an idea of how many dropouts are in Chicago, imagine for a minute you’re at Soldier Field. The stadium is packed. There are 60,000 people here. That’s how many dropouts this city has.

The dropouts range from 13 to 21 years old, kids who have no high school diploma and are not in school—they would fill up this stadium. Every seat.

Now, for the first time, Chicago is pledging to go after them.

Leonetta Sanders is not actually looking for dropouts. The district doesn’t do that yet. But it could learn a lot from the way the Harper High School principal goes after her truant students.

Chicago's 60,000 Dropouts

Chicago Public Schools 5-year Graduation Rate

Data from Chicago Public Schools

“Where are you supposed to be at right now? (At school). Why aren’t you in school? (I don’t know.),” Sanders said.

Sanders works off a list of names and addresses—today it’s freshmen. But out on the streets, she’ll go after anybody—forget the list.

When she sees one of her students pushing a lawn mower down Damen Avenue at 11 a.m., she’s on it.

Sanders: What you pushing this lawn mower for? (‘Cause I’m finna go home and cut my grass.) OK, and then what you gonna do tomorrow at 7:45? (Be at school.) You gonna be at school, Baber? (Yes.)  Are you sure you’re gonna be at school? (Positive.) You gonna have on your uniform? (Yes). You ready to learn? OK. Now don’t lie to me, if you say you're gonna be there I expect you to be there, OK? (OK) All right. (OK).

Sanders crosses the street at a furious pace. She heads straight for the gas station where Baber had been hanging out—and ducks inside.

“I understand some of my kids are hanging out here during the day—they’re supposed to be in school. And I just caught one of them leaving here. So I need you to let them know, that they need to be in school, starting tomorrow—full uniform.”

From behind thick, bulletproof glass, the gas station attendant promises not to sell anything to kids during school hours.

And that’s how the morning goes. Sanders knocks on doors, talks on porches.  “A lot of people are like, ‘You the principal? Coming out to the house?’ Yeah!”

Some believe it’s going to take that sort of attitude and outreach to get thousands of dropouts back to school. Without trying to, Sanders finds two dropouts after visiting half dozen homes. One agrees to enroll in Harper. He’s 16, on house arrest on a gun charge, with a fat ankle bracelet around his leg.

“Hey darlin’, step on out. What are you doing?” she asks one former student. “Sleeping? What’s your name? So you went to Marshall? What happened?”

“There you go. When you get out in the community--see? He wasn’t even expecting to be on our roster. But we’re gonna take him in, we’re gonna welcome him, and see what we can do to make sure that he’s successful and that he graduates,” she said. “Now it’s 49,999!”

Some dropouts do find their way back to school—but that’s often because of community groups or family, not the schools. Jennifer Vidis oversees alternative schools for Chicago Public Schools.

“What we have never had is a systemic effort to identify and recover these students and get them back in school,” Vidis said.

It’s a big deal, this new commitment the district is making. But all the details--how they’ll find dropouts, what the campaign will look like, how many kids will re-enroll, how they'll pay for it… nobody has any of that figured out yet.

“We will have a very highly visible, youth-friendly system for reaching these kids, figuring out what the best fit is for them, and counseling them into those seats,” she said.

Think Facebook, Twitter, websites, an ad campaign. In Houston, one politician said this: “We’re coming to get you to bring you back. And we may not get you today, but we’re going to eventually get you back in the system.”

Cities like Houston have run campaigns to re-enroll dropouts. Houston is gearing up right now for an annual one-day dropout walk. Politicians join a thousand volunteers and go door to door to encourage kids to go back to school. Last year, the district says 735 re-enrolled.

Houston’s campaign is flashy, but many point to Philadelphia as a model. Laura Shubilla helped lead a massive citywide effort there to bring back dropouts.

“When we started this process there was a lot of interest in doing a big ‘We want you back’ campaign, and we spent a lot of time talking about … well, if we’re gonna ask kids to come back we actually have to have someplace for them to come back to, and sending them back to the place they left in the first place because it wasn’t the right school for them isn’t the answer,” Shubilla said.

Chicago knows this, too. The district is adding nearly 10,000 alternative seats at tiny schools around the city, with the first of them projected to open a year from now.

Authorizing those schools was one of the mayor’s goals for his first 100 days in office.

District officials want to copy another idea from Philadelphia: re-enrollment centers, where kids can talk with counselors about why they left school in the first place. Did they need childcare? Do they have trouble reading? Answers to those questions can help direct kids to a school that zeroes in on their needs.

Shubilla says it’s a victory when a city decides to take responsibility for the young people it’s lost. “If you can do this right and pull this off, not only is it an economic imperative locally and nationally, but just the moral imperative of it becomes very powerful for a city.”

The clock is ticking on the stadium full of dropouts, though. CPS admits a quarter of the 60,000 are already too old—even on a fast track, they won’t be able to earn enough credits before they age out of school.

Another 45,000 kids have a shot—if the city’s campaign to bring them back gets underway.