State council proposes plan to help dropout rate

A task force charged with keeping Illinois students in school unveiled recommendations today including the creation of small campuses for high school dropouts and more federal dollars to fight the problem.

Members of the Illinois State Council on Re-Enrolling Students Who Dropped Out of School also stressed the urgency of the issue.

"People might say it doesn't impact me," says Jesse Ruiz, the chairman of both the state Board of Education and State Council. "Wrong. It impacts every one of us. Dropouts are more likely to drain (our society's) resources, which will cost us more and more money."

Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network and a member of the task force, says more alternative schooling programs should be established to address the problem. Each school should hold no more than between 70 to 100 students, he says.

More funding is needed to improve existing programs for re-enrolled students, including full-time, part-time, on-line, dual enrollment and GED preparation programs, Wuest says.

The goal is to re-enroll 7,900 students by  2010, Wuest says, and more than 24,000 by 2013-2014. Funding would come from a combination of general state coffers and the re-enrolling funding.

Wuest said at this morning's breakfast meeting at the Union League Club of Chicago that the problem is urgent, as the unemployment rate for dropouts is 47 percent and more than 70 percent of men in prison are high school dropouts.

One student who returned to school after dropping out, Cleveland Bell of Jane Addams Alternative High School, says more needs to be done to catch at-risk youths before they fall out of the system.

"Some students just fly under the radar, never get noticed," Bell says. "Some have serious home issues. If you're given a chance with an alternative school, you're given a second chance to succeed."

"If there were more alternative schools like my school, my friends would be there," Bell says.

The issue of high school dropouts, which the council found closely related to Chicago street violence, got emotions flowing at some points.

"Let's get real here.  Let's stop meeting, talking, councils, this and that.  Let's get to work, change the policies," Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins, D-Chicago, said to applause. "No kid, who has not committed a serious crime, should be pushed from the school to the city streets."

"We as adults can't just say what we need to do, we need to have the courage to do it," adds Alderman Latasha Thomas, D-17. "If we don't get moving, we'll be sitting here in five years, having only made two steps forward."

City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who spoke at the meeting, recounted some personal experiences about the dropout situation.

"This is nothing new," he says. "I was the only one to graduate from high school in my family ... I had friends who dropped out not on this earth today, and here I am today, an old fellow talking about this."