The American way to catch drop-outs;Another Voice;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

12th November 1999 at 00:00
WHY do some pupils feel alienated from schools while others flourish? Why do some have the resilience that allows them to get on in a busy, noisy classroom while others lose the plot and, at worst, simply walk out the door and never come back?

During my secondary school years in 60s America, I was one of those unresilient plot-losers who withdrew and, on more occasions than I care to recount, walked, ran or floated out of school. That I came back enough times to be able to graduate is down to one teacher who , with infinite humanity, believed in and challenged me. As a result, I acquired the self-esteem that had so eluded me up until that point, and with it I gained a foothold in my future.

Pulling a bombed-out student back from the brink shouldn't be up to one lone teacher in any school. But it often is. Having met many kids like myself since those far-off days of my nearly wasted youth, I understand how easy it was for teachers to give up on me. The disaffected aren't very charismatic. They can be rude, even threatening. Even their frequent absences create discomfort: their empty seats resonate with disdain.

Research shows that those already typecast as socially excluded are more likely to drop out. Children living in poverty, black and white working-class boys, abused children and those in care or living in single-parent families are most at risk of not completing their education. But while those factors have a huge impact on academic achievement, schools have enormous potential to mitigate them.

Among the issues they have to address are: who are their disaffected pupils and what are their individual needs; how to get them in a position to be able to learn; how to get their parents and the community to work with the school to support them; and finally, how to make the curriculum more compelling and the structure of the school more humane so that the content and form are genuinely inclusive.

I've seen schools in this country, struggling against underfunding and ingrained despair in their communities, that have valiantly taken up some of these challenges. But it's in the United States where I've found radical top to-bottom change.

Home of some of the worst schools in the western world, America is also a laboratory for some of the most innovative education reforms to be found. The reformers believe that young people need to feel good about themselves and know that school is on their side if they are to be motivated. They have to experience themselves as respected, active partners in their education rather than as passive recipients. They have to be challenged, not patronised. And, crucially, they have to make positive connections with their teachers.

A school in the south Bronx, a godforsaken area of New York City, caters for students who have been kicked out of other schools. It challenges students to reach the highest academic levels - and they do, outstripping many mainstream schools. Its small size helps, enabling strong interpersonal relationships.

Respect for students helps, too. They are given choices and responsibilities and recognition for their achievements. Tutoring is offered at lunchtimes, before and after school and during the holidays. If there's such a thing as a child-centred achievement culture, this is it.

The most far-reaching initiative I've seen has been in New Haven, Connecticut.

The school district was so appalled by high drop-out and teenage pregnancy rates as well as violence and low literacy skills that it undertook a study to identify common denominators in order to devise solutions.

It found that the students' self-esteem and communication skills were low, so set about creating a social development programme that addresses these deficits.

It's now part of the statutory curriculum from kindergarten through to high school. Since it was introduced, drop-out and pregnancy rates have fallen, literacy rates have improved and youth violence has been reduced.

By looking at American models, where some schools have achieved joined-up solutions, we can find innovative and pupil-friendly ways of giving children what they need. But the bottom line for any significant change has to be schools that are respectful, caring, hopeful places where stimulation and challenges dominate every lesson.

Defying Disaffection by Reva Klein is published by Trentham Books. To order, ring 01782 745553

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