At the urging of community leaders, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas and the School Board are taking steps to hold schools more accountable for their dropout rates and to increase programs to keep kids in school. In a March 19 letter to Vallas, Bill Leavy, executive director of the Greater West Town Development Project, urged Vallas “to acknowledge a growing dropout problem as an unintended, but related, consequence of” efforts to enforce high standards.

Stressing that his organization supports high standards, Leavy urged the board to consider dropout rates as well as test scores when putting schools on probation and taking them off.

While Vallas contends that dropouts have been undercounted in the past, he has decided to factor dropout rates into decisions on school probation. In a May interview, he told Catalyst that next year’s probation criteria will give lower-testing schools some relief if their dropout rates are low. “We’ll tolerate lower test scores as long as you’re keeping these kids in school, and they’re getting an education,” he said.

In a school system first, Vallas also has launched detailed audits of school’s attendance and dropout records. “We are in the process of a massive, five-year, school-by-school audit that we have equated to Sherman’s march in terms of its thoroughness,” Vallas told the City Council Education Committee in April. Because dropouts are notoriously under-reported, he added, “we are in the process of establishing a legitimate baseline.” School audits thus far reveal hundreds of chronic truants kept on enrollment long after board policy says they should have been dropped. (See story.)

Leavy and others involved with the Youth Connection Charter School also have been pressing the board to increase the charter’s funding so that the schools that make up the charter can serve more dropouts. Currently funded for 1,000 slots, Youth Connection’s charter allows for a maximum of 1,600 slots. Last month, Vallas agreed to provide funding for 1,400.

“I think that news is terrific,” says Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, tipping his hat to Mayor Richard M. Daley, Board President Gery Chico and Vallas for breaking ” the mold of 25 years of the Board of Ed not working with community groups on this issue.” One of the Daley team’s first moves was to sign contracts with private alternative schools.

Spurred by the efforts of Englewood and Kelvyn Park high schools, the board also is opening one evening high school in each region. Both Englewood and Kelvyn Park had launched evening schools on their own. Now, the board will chip in about $1 million for all six evening schools, according to Carlos Azcoitia, deputy chief education officer.

In an interview with Catalyst, Vallas said that summer school may return next year for freshmen and sophomores who have failed courses. This year, the board gave 31 high schools $3 million for tutoring and before- and after-school makeup courses for students behind on their credits.

The board also is expanding its Cradle to Classroom program, which aims to keep pregnant teens in school and foster healthy development of their babies.

Further, in his state of the city address, Daley returned to a theme he first sounded four years ago: small schools, which have been associated with lower dropout rates.

A recent report by small-schools advocates shows that small schools inside several Chicago high schools—Chicago Vocational, Harper, Orr and Robeson—posted higher attendance rates than did the schools as a whole.

In his speech, Daley said, “We must break up the larger high schools into smaller ones by creating schools within schools—where parents, teachers, students and administrators develop closer personal relationships—and the support they need to counter negative peer pressure and say no to gangs, guns and drugs.”

On this point, some critics of the Daley team agree. “The most successful approach to keeping students in school is to create an engaging, challenging educational program that students want to attend, and for teachers to make a personal connection with students,” says Suzanne Davenport, acting executive director of Designs for Change.

“Now, the high school curriculum emphasizes constant drill, which many marginal students have experienced their entire school career,” she adds. “Gimmicks like automated systems for calling absent students can’t substitute for an engaging educational program and teachers who reach out.”

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