Julia Steiny: Face It: Helping All Kids Graduate Requires a Second Shift of Supportive Adults.
Of the 20-year-olds who were unemployed during the recent recession, roughly 70 percent were high-school drop-outs.
Dr. Robert Balfanz asks, "With no diploma and no work history, are they ever going to work? Every year we (America) put a million kids into that pipeline." Which leads to prison, chronic unemployment, and reliance on social services. Maintaining this pipeline is not in our national interests, to say the least.
A researcher at John Hopkins University, Balfanz co-directs the Everyone Graduates Center. He also works on Colin Powell's project, the America's Promise Alliance with the specific goal of raising the nation's graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020. Currently, it's about 75 percent. This means getting 600,000 more kids across the stage each year.
"But if you remember," he muses, speaking recently at the Rhode Island Foundation, "90 percent was also the graduation target for (the Clinton-era's) Goals 2000." We're not making much progress.
Improving graduation is a hard, hard job.
Still, Balfanz argues that the job is absolutely doable. Read a description of what he calls his "Civic Marshall Plan," designed to accelerate the little bits of progress made so far. But despite its clear, commonsensical nature, the Plan is dauntingly ambitious.
Today let's consider one piece of it, perhaps the toughest for most people to swallow. Balfanz makes inspiring suggestions for how schools could become attractive, effective places where kidswant to come and learn. But even if schools achieve such improvement, many kids will still need what he calls a "second shift of adults" to keep them on track.
Imagine a healthy path that reliably takes kids through high school to finishing the post-secondary training they need to thrive in this economy. Balfanz would say that kids on that healthy track have the A, B, Cs – Attendance, Behavior, and Course Completion. They have learned how to get their own butts out of bed, how to stay out of trouble, and how to earn at least a "B" average overall. It's not such a tall order.
But imagine how easily it is to fall off that track. Many kids have incompetent parents, for whatever reason. Some suffer untreated trauma. Poverty, violence, mental illness and substance abuse might affect either the parents or the kids, resulting in a kid's school problems. Adolescents get moody and disaffected. Schools themselves might be alienating, harsh, impersonal or dull.
So at any point in kids' lives, circumstances may push or entice them off that healthy path and into the stream coursing toward the drop-out pipeline.
The second shift, then, are those individuals and agencies standing ready to catch the kid the moment she's slipping. Someone needs to figure out what the root problem is, and respond with the right support or intervention, at the right scale and intensity. Or she's gone.
One kid may simply need an encouraging mentor asking after her homework every day. But another needs heavy-duty social services to work with his whole family to get him back. Others may need tutoring, a friend, a father figure, a grief therapist, or someone reliable to give his grandmother her insulin shot during the day so he can get to school. Kids who've experienced social or academic failure avoid repeating the horrible feeling of failure by withdrawing effort. "I don't care and I won't try." Someone has to pull them back.
The challenge is massive.
"But the good news," Balfanz enthuses, "is that this is a giant engineering problem and America is good at engineering."
How would he have us begin this engineering feat?
Start with good data. No Child Left Behind forced schools and municipalities to build robust data systems, so those systems can help us know where each and every kid is at regarding the A, B, Cs.
A kindergartner's spotty attendance is a red flag. Middle-school kids getting suspended are surely in trouble. Intervene asap, before the problem gets bigger.
Balfanz gestures wildly, dramatizing the data's evidence that "by the 6th grade, certain kids are waving their arms and yelling I'm going to drop out." Two-thirds of incarcerated boys and two-thirds of girls who get prematurely pregnant were, when they were in 6th grade, chronically absent, getting suspended, failing English or math, or some combination.
But, monkey see, monkey do. How many kids have plenty of adults and older kids around them, modeling and teaching the self-management and personal organization needed to pull off A, B, and C?
Precious few. Especially in low-income communities.
"If we don't have interventions, diagnoses are meaningless."
So who steps in?
Balfanz says, "Kids need much more than a good lesson every day. A teacher has 20 kids – or 120 – and can be heroic with, like, 5. So how many adults do we need to mobilize to see to it that all kids are getting what they need?"
He doesn't pretend to have that answer. Yes, AmeriCorps, Scouts, clubs, sports and recreation departments are big contributors. Non-profits and the business communities are stepping up more lately. Still, oceans of kids need basic daily nurturing: "I'm here to help, and I like you." Only such a personal approach will support a struggling child to develop her own self management.
Balfanz concludes by offering "A Nobel prize to the person who figures out how we get that second shift."
It's a profoundly daunting challenge. But I'm sure he's right.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected].