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Chicago Works to Keep Teens in School

Would-be dropouts and their parents must sign a waiver warning of the decision's consequences.

March 07, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — In an effort to curtail truancies and dropouts, Chicago public schools will require students who want to quit to sign a waiver that states that doing so will be hazardous to their futures. Parents must also sign the waiver, which warns that dropping out of school often leads to unemployment, jail and other troubles.

Officials in the country's third-largest school district approved the mandated consent form last week, saying that the move is intended to send a wake-up call to at-risk teens in Cook County.

In the past, Chicago public school students could call their schools by phone, and say they were not returning. The new rule covers students age 16 to 18.

Across the country, school dropout rates are a growing concern among educators and employers. Those who study the issue say the problem is acute in Chicago and elsewhere, especially among black and Latino students, where dropout rates can be 50% or higher.

The Chicago waiver lists a series of likely consequences that parents and students must acknowledge, including being "less likely to find good jobs that pay well," and more likely to find "bad jobs that don't pay well, or maybe any jobs."

It tells them they will be more likely to be involved in criminal activity, more likely to rely on the state welfare system for their livelihood and more likely to spend time in jail or prison.

District officials say that, while some critics consider the waiver's language excessive, some at-risk youths would be less likely to react to a softer touch.

"If we do nothing, we condemn them to social failure," said Arne Duncan, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools. "It is our moral obligation to let kids know that if they do this, there will be devastating consequences. Dropping out is not the answer."

An estimated 13% of the district's 435,000 students quit school each year.

But the true number may be larger, as a recent national education survey found that several states, including in Illinois, that leading school districts inflate the number of students who graduate from high school.

The survey -- which was done by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research group based in Washington, D.C., and the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University -- found that data from school systems in the Illinois cities of Waukegan, Carpentersville, Elgin and Rockford among others, were flawed.

Part of the problem was that some school districts counted all students who left their schools as having transferred elsewhere, regardless of whether there was proof they were attending classes at another campus.

The report estimates that, over a four-year period, 42.1% of black students and 50.8% of Latino students graduated from high school in Chicago.

Christopher Swanson, research associate with the Urban Institute, said that nationwide "we don't devote the time and resources to track our students."

"School systems need to know where their students are, and what happens to them when they're not enrolled in their schools," Swanson said. "If you don't, you won't know if students are being pushed out, or if students are in some sort of need."

School officials in Chicago said the new consent form was not developed in reaction to the survey, but as part of a multifaceted effort that also includes extended classes for students who need help with math and on-campus counseling with local nonprofit organizations.

Districts across the country are also trying to step up efforts to keep students in school.

In Indiana, a massive education reform plan being considered includes revamping how children are tracked from grade to grade and raises the minimum age when students can leave high school. In Rhode Island, where 16-year-olds must get signatures from parents or a guardian before dropping out, one district runs "truancy courts" program, where students who have been skipping school must explain their absences before a state magistrate.

In Chicago, the dropout waiver forms were sent to the district's schools last week. Principals at each school will be in charge of enforcing the program, and getting the consent forms signed by the would-be drop-outs and their parents.

As of Friday, no schools had handed out the waiver.

Duncan, the schools' administrator, acknowledged that it may be difficult for school officials to contact students and their parents if the child abruptly leaves, or doesn't formally drop out of school.

"This is not a cure-all," Duncan said. "It's another strategy. Because to me, a 13% [total] dropout rate is unacceptably high. This is simply another tool that, when added to our other tools, will collectively have an impact."

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