When Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law to raise the age that teenagers can legally leave school, it was the first step toward tackling the high school dropout rate. Step two, advocates say, is nailing down how many teenagers are out of school now and then getting them to come back.

Last month, Blagojevich announced that State Board of Education Chairman Jesse Ruiz would head a new task force that focuses on re-enrolling dropouts. Other members of the task force—the result of a House Resolution passed in the spring—are legislators, Schools CEO Arnie Duncan and dropout prevention and recovery advocates like Jack Wuest.

Wuest’s advocacy organization, the Alternative Schools Network, has been pushing the state to look at these issues for years.

“We want people to see these teenagers as students, not as dead-end dropouts,” Wuest says. Once people look at these young people as students, they will start to see the possibility that they will re-enroll, he says.

Over the next two years, the task force will look at a combination of issues. At the top of the list is determining the actual number of dropouts in school districts throughout Illinois.

Currently, the Illinois State Board of Education calls for districts to count as dropouts any student who is not currently on the roster with the exception of those who transferred to another school, died or are absent due to a prolonged illness. Critics say this measure is faulty because it is only a one-year rate and disregards those who transfer to alternative schools but never wind up graduating.

The report that the task force is compiling will make use of data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey and will show, over a period of time, how many dropouts are in a particular town.

The task force also will look at accountability and funding for programs that serve dropouts.

Wuest says he would like the task force to recommend that some funding be set aside for programs to help recapture students who have dropped out but want to return. Often, teenagers who drop out are not going to return to their old high schools because whatever problems they had there still exist, he explains. “But if they see other options, they might come back,” he says.

There is already demand for more alternative high school programs, which exist for students who have previously dropped out or had discipline problems in traditional high schools. Currently, all of Chicago’s alternative high schools are operating at capacity and have waiting lists.

Dropout hearings across the state

This month, the task force will release dropout data for districts statewide, and then hold hearings to determine whether the data is accurate and complete. Wuest notes that a hearing may not be necessary in Chicago because a comprehensive report on CPS dropouts was produced by the Consortium on Chicago School Research last year.

That report revealed a 16 percentagepoint gap between the district’s official graduation rate (70 percent) and the actual percentage of high school students who graduate in a four-year period (54 percent). The district figure is higher than the Consortium’s because a large number of students are counted as transfers—including those who go to alternative schools within the system—but never tracked to determine whether they eventually graduate. The Consortium, however, used individual student records to track who graduated, whether they change schools or not.

Statewide, the dropout rate declined significantly over the past year, with 5,000 fewer students leaving high school compared to the previous year.

However, some question whether the lower dropout rate means that more teenagers are staying in school. In 2004, Illinois changed the legal dropout age from 16 to 17. Since then, 16-year-olds who don’t come to school are counted as chronic truants, not dropouts, says Patricia Vesper, attendance director for Roosevelt High School.

To really tackle the dropout problem, Vesper says she needs truant officers to track down students who stop showing up for school immediately. The district eliminated truant officers about a decade ago. The responsibility for keeping after absent students falls to high school attendance offices, which have limited staff and funding.

Another challenge that complicates dropout recovery efforts is the federal No Child Left Behind law, says Sheila Venson, director of Youth Connections Charter, which runs 23 programs in Chicago. Accountability provisions in the law now require that at least 50 percent of students perform at grade level in reading and math.

But most students in alternative schools dropped out because they were struggling academically, notes Venson, who estimates at least 65 percent of Youth Connections Charter students are reading below 7th-grade level. In 2005, only 19 percent of the charter school’s students passed Prairie State exams.

“There should be different standards of accountability,” she says.

To contact Sarah Karp, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail karp@catalyst-chicago.org.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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