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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 13:20 EDT

Chicago’s Dropout Rate Drops

September 13, 2005

Sep. 12–Chicago Public Schools’ one-year dropout rate fell last year after pressure from parents and state legislators pushed city schools to work harder at keeping more teenagers in class, district figures show.

The district is to release data Monday that shows 10.2 percent of its high school students dropped out in the 2004-05 school year, compared with 11.9 percent in the previous school year.

“It’s encouraging, but there is no such thing as an acceptable dropout rate,” schools chief Arne Duncan said. “Any student who leaves high school is condemned to social failure. This isn’t 30 or 40 years ago when a dropout could go to the stockyards or the steel mills for a job. There is no way to support a family and own a home with the kinds of jobs available. We have to get the rate to zero.”

Although the latest number suggests Chicago schools are making progress, the one-year snapshot does not provide an accurate picture over time of how many students finish high school in four or even five years.

A little more than half of the students who begin public high school in Chicago graduate four years later, according to the most recent and reliable research. The overall dropout rate to be released Monday also masks differences among racial and ethnic groups in the city, especially among African-American males who leave school at staggering rates.

Chicago officials could not provide racial and ethnic breakdowns in the one-year figure.

Although the rate is computed using the same method approved for all districts by the Illinois State Board of Education, the figure also omits students from some alternative settings, such as students in jail school, who drop out at higher rates.

Still, the number heartened city school officials, who have provided more choices for struggling students in recent years. Their efforts have ranged from adding 800 seats in alternative high schools, which are smaller and emphasize more individual support, to making it easier for students to attend night high school.

Many of those programs were beefed up after community leaders, including state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago) and William Leavy of the Greater West Town Community Development Project, demanded the Chicago Public Schools pay more attention to the problem.

Duncan said he especially was pleased that some high school students are leading efforts to support each other to stay in school.

At Kenwood Academy High School , near the Hyde Park neighborhood where Duncan grew up, two students approached guidance counselor Shelby Wyatt in the spring and suggested students start a mentoring program to help each other to be successful in the classroom.

More than 50 students, who call themselves the Brotherhood, meet weekly at Kenwood under Wyatt’s guidance to create an environment in which it’s socially acceptable to do well in school. If a member of the Brotherhood receives a discipline referral at school, he must come before his peers to explain why he got in trouble and could be placed on probation with the group.

“Lots of people who don’t do well try to bring you down with them,” said Kenwood senior Brendan Lane, 17, a member of the Brotherhood. “If you’re hanging with people who have more positive things going on, you’re not going to go to the bad side.”

Adrian Sanchez, 17, another Kenwood senior and member of the Brotherhood, credits the group with helping him to raise his “so-so” grades of C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s.

“You have a lot of freedom in high school that you don’t have in grammar school,” Sanchez said. “I was slacking in the classroom and had a ‘don’t care’ attitude–and the Brotherhood motivated me to change that.”

Though the latest dropout rate suggests improvement, the Chicago school system’s overall record means that thousands of young people without high school diplomas live in Chicago.

“We can’t forget that tens of thousands of kids already are on the streets in Chicago with no diploma,” said Jack Wuest, director of the Chicago Alternative Schools Network, which serves struggling students and those who have dropped out.

He said taxpayers will pay for those dropouts through increased crime rates and welfare payments, according to research.

“We have to find more ways to re-enroll them,’ Wuest said. “What’s available now doesn’t begin to address the magnitude of the problem.”

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