Dropouts stump educators; Forum with state leader focuses on ways to keep students enrolled

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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RICHARDSON — Failing grades. Parents who aren’t involved. Feeling isolated from the rest of the school. Pregnancy.

It wasn’t hard for the educators at Wednesday’s dropout prevention forum to say why some kids quit school. Figuring out how to keep them in class – that has proved harder.

“The dropout issue is something we’ll have to take care of by design, not by chance,” said Ted Moore, McKinney ISD’s deputy superintendent.

About 100 Dallas-area teachers, principals, administrators and parents met at the Richardson Civic Center to discuss what they’ve tried to prevent dropouts. The focus groups were led by Paul Cruz, the state’s new “dropout czar,” who is leading similar sessions around the state.

“Our intent is to get out to the community and see what’s working and what’s not,” said Dr. Cruz, the former Laredo superintendent who was appointed the Texas Education Agency’s deputy commissioner for dropout prevention and initiatives this summer.

The educators broke into small groups and were charged with answering two questions: Why do kids drop out? And what can be done to keep them in school?

Some ideas: better mentoring programs for troubled children. Better identification of learning problems at an early age. Smaller classes and smaller schools. More flexible schedules for students who have to work. Training programs for parents to get them more involved.

“We need to ask the kids who have dropped out what it was that led them that way,” said Evelio Flores, a youth counselor who works with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization. “They’re the ones who know.”

If there was a consensus in the group, it was that at-risk students needed to feel a stronger personal connection to their schools. That could mean being on the football team or in a play; it could also mean a teacher or counselor taking an interest.

“Someone needs to care about each student,” said Noelle DeMarest, a Richardson parent who said her younger sister dropped out of school, despite being part of an upper-middle class family in Plano. “You’d hope it would be the parents, but it won’t always be.”

“When you get to a high school with 2,000 kids or 4,000 kids, it’s so easy to lose kids in the mix, even with the most caring people,” Dr. Cruz said.

“We have to have a high level of urgency.”

The state’s official dropout statistics wouldn’t seem to support such urgency. According to the Texas Education Agency, only 1 percent of Texas students in grades 7 to 12 dropped out in 2000-01, the most recent year available.

But a variety of sources have indicated that the problem is significantly larger than what the state reports.

In 2000-01, Texas had 360,000 high school freshmen, but only 220,000 seniors.

A study last year by the education research group Just for the Kids estimated that 20 percent of students who entered Texas high schools in 1994 did not graduate within five years.

Federal data released in August said that Texas’ annual dropout rate was almost four times as large as the state’s estimate.