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02/09/07 -The Washington Post - "Striving to Get Students to Drop Back In"
Each night, while his peers prepared for the next school day, Michael Barksdale picked out DVDs to watch from the comfort of his living room.
He should have been in 11th grade at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast Washington, but he was so far behind in such core subjects as reading and math that school officials wanted to bump him back two whole grades. So he stayed home and slept late.
Empty days turned into weeks, then into months. When his mother pressed him to go back to school, he fooled her by sneaking out his bedroom window with a knapsack, then "arrived" home through the front door.
One day, he realized that he had become an official high school dropout.
"I was lazy. I didn't really want to go to school, and I said, 'Forget it,' " said Barksdale, 17, who in August resumed his education at YouthBuild, a charter school geared to dropouts.
With that "Forget it," Barksdale became one of thousands of District youths annually who leave high school without a diploma.
As D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) pushes to take control of the 55,000-student public school system, one of the more vexing issues is the dropout rate. An estimated 15 percent of youths never even enroll in high school, and the dropout rate districtwide is more than 50 percent, according to school statistics.
The D.C. Council will hold a hearing today to give young people a chance to join the debate over their education. It is the fourth public hearing on the mayor's proposal.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he wants to get input both from students and dropouts. Fenty proposes making the Board of Education an advisory body and assuming responsibility to build schools and hire the superintendent. The council will vote on the proposal this spring.
"We talk a lot about young people, and oftentimes, we don't meaningfully involve them in the issues that affect their lives," Gray said. "I want to know firsthand what their school environment is like, what the buildings are like, how they interact with their peers, their relationships with teachers, what they consider to be a good teacher."
Several former dropouts interviewed this week have their own ideas to fix the city's ailing schools. They want more tutoring and extra help when they fall behind. And they want parents who set curfews and punish them for missing school.
"We don't want teachers and counselors who are here to get paid," said Tamika "Shelly" Briscoe, 17, who started skipping classes at Cardozo Senior High School last semester after she had trouble in a chemistry class and is now enrolled in a new program that gives students the chance to make up coursework in night classes. "If you don't have teachers who care, then you're not going to come to school."
D.C. law requires youths to attend school until the age of 18. Schools utilize automated dialing systems to notify parents within 24 hours of an unexplained absence. When elementary students miss 15 or more days in a semester, their parents can be reported to the attorney general's office.
The dropout problem is not uniform throughout the city. The average graduation rate was 69.9 percent for the Class of 2005. With only three dropouts that year, 96.3 percent graduated from Banneker Academic High School in Columbia Heights. Anacostia Senior High School, in contrast, had more dropouts than graduates -- 90 to 87 -- for a graduation rate of 49.1 percent.
Nationally, one-third of high school students leave school without a diploma, according to a March 2006 study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation titled "The Silent Epidemic." A poll of nearly 500 dropouts found that they left school because classes were uninteresting, they had missed too many days or they lacked structure.
Turning the tide requires parental involvement. D.C. Superior Court launched a truancy initiative last year at Garnet-Patterson Middle School in Northwest, featuring weekly meetings with parents and students.
Many dropouts, rather than enjoying their time away from classrooms and homework, are seeking a way back into school. Marcus Alston, 19, sat in the Anacostia office of Peaceoholics last week, recalling how he passed unemployed men idling on street corners and wondered whether that was to be his fate.
Alston said that in January 2006, he was expelled from Anacostia High School as a 10th-grader after school officials accused him of being part of a gang that started a fight. Alston denies having anything to do with the altercation.
When he tried to enroll elsewhere, no school would accept him. So he got into "everything bad you could think of," Alston said. "I was always looking over my shoulder, always scared." Alston said.
On a friend's recommendation, Alston went to the nonprofit Peaceoholics group and talked to counselors. He ended up enrolling in a GED preparation class run by the city's Project Empowerment program. He spends his spare time taking practice GED tests on a computer.
There are many other government and nonprofit groups geared to dropouts. Jobs for America's Graduates provides extra help in the classroom, tutoring and career and college counseling at four middle schools and high schools. The $1.75 million program is paid for through a mix of local and federal funds.
Some charter schools focus on dropouts. At YouthBuild, which opened in 2005 to serve dropouts ages 16 to 24, students learn construction skills, get paid for the work they do and study toward a GED or high school diploma. Their problems are myriad. More than 55 percent read on an elementary school grade level, and about one-third are parents. At the end of the one-year program, about two-thirds of students have increased their reading proficiency by at least two grade levels.
Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for Technical Arts prepares students to get a GED and teaches them a trade. That's where Carla Peatross, 50, is taking GED classes.
"I truly feel it's a blessing that people my age and who have made mistakes in life have time to correct them," Peatross said. "It's definitely my second chance."
Credit: Theola Labbe, Washington Post Staff Writer