As a writer and editor, I have a rule: Avoid the use of catch-phrases, clichés and jargon in articles whenever possible. Readers are better served by vivid illustration—with anecdotes, data, telling details or colorful quotes—than by overused or vague expressions.

Still, there’s no better substitute for the phrase “school to prison pipeline” to describe some of the data in this issue of Catalyst In Depth. The data is yet another distressing reminder of the racial disparity in achievement in Chicago Public Schools: African-American and Latino boys are more likely than other students to drop out, but they are the least likely to reap any advantage from the district’s alternative schools, which are the last stop for  dropouts who want another chance to earn a diploma. Enrollment and graduation rates for these boys—and for young black men in particular—are far lower than for African-American girls and Latinas.

So where do these young men end up? “Often, jail,” says Principal Matt Rodriguez of Pedro Albizu Campos High. And national studies show a clear connection between dropping out of school and dropping into prison. One recent report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that nearly one in four young black men who had dropped out of school was in prison or jail. 

Rodriguez wages a constant battle to keep his male students in school and out of the clutches of gangs in the surrounding Humboldt Park neighborhood. He’s even taken the step of hiring former gang members to help boys who want to get out of the gang life. “I have students in here full of tattoos, and I don’t turn them away,” Rodriguez says. “I try to get them out of the gang. We aren’t always successful, but we have to try.”

In addition to more resources, rescuing black and brown young men who have already given up once on school will require that same “whatever-it-takes” attitude.

When Chicago begins handing out the five charters that have been set aside solely for dropouts under the state’s new charter law, at least a few of these new charters ought to be for boys only. Surely there are non-profit and educational institutions with the expertise for this essential task.

CEO Ron Huberman has said data analysis must drive improvement efforts. We’ve analyzed the data and uncovered the problem—now it’s up to the district to take the reins.

Alternative schools face another stiff challenge that affects girls as well as boys.

Increasingly, many students are 18 or 19 years old, yet are reading at only a 6th-grade or 7th-grade level and have less than a handful of credits. One 17-year-old young woman interviewed by Deputy Editor Sarah Karp had only one credit.

Add in problems such as homelessness or teen parenthood, embarrassment at being a dropout and frustration with school in general, and it’s no wonder that about half of students end up quitting yet again.

Even so, some alternative schools manage to beat the odds and provide a disciplined yet nurturing environment that supports students so they can succeed. One such school, Innovations High—formerly Bronzeville Academic Center—has a team of seven counselor-mentors for a student body of just 150. Compare that to the 350-to-1 ratio of students to counselors in Chicago schools. Classes are small, students wear uniforms, and discussions about college are a given.

“We have enough time and enough staff to know each student and establish a relationship with them,” says Principal LaShaun Jackson, who says strong engagement is a must to help his students. Jackson had never headed a school before taking the helm at Innovations, but had a background in social service work with troubled youth.(Read more about Innovations High)

Chicago needs more alternative schools—and frankly, more neighborhood high schools—where engagement, support and learning are at least a possibility, especially for former dropouts.

These schools will take more resources, but will pay economic as well as social dividends. According to a report from the Illinois Task Force on Re-enrolling Dropouts,   taxpayers reap more than $200,000 in additional tax revenue for every former dropout who graduates.

And consider this: Alternative schools currently receive about $7,900 per pupil from the district. Double that, and it’s still less than the cost of one year in prison: $17,000 to $33,000 per inmate.

Which would you rather pay for?

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