In Detroit last week, educationists involved in some of the most innovative programmes anywhere with young people at risk of leaving school early came together at the National Dropout Prevention Network's conference to share their practices, methodologies and frustrations.
Dr Jay Smink, director of the South Carolina based Network, expressed concern that schools were only catering for 75 per cent of their pupils at most. "There are 15,000 school districts in the United States," he said, "and every one of them would say that they had a drop-out prevention programme. But increasingly popular options such as in-school suspension regimes, which are essentially prisons inside school where children are supervised either by a police officer or class teacher, are only holding actions."
Former teacher and now director of student life at Michigan State University Dr Elba Santiago told teachers in an emotional keynote address "You are doing the most important job in America today. I care that teachers are blamed and battered for so many conditions over which they have no control. It's society that's at risk - not our children."
She painted a picture of a divided nation of educated and under-educated, where poor andor ethnic minority children are branded as under-achievers and where even those who make it to college are at risk of dropping out. She also decried the drain of resources from education."We've just spent $45 million looking into the private life of our President. Don't let anyone tell you there isn't enough money to mend leaking roofs or to buy books."
Teachers are at the frontline of children's lives, she insisted. "Some enter our classrooms to receive the only positive human interaction in their lives," said the Puerto Rican daughter of manual workers. One in five is coming into school hungry every day. More than a quarter of a million are born to mothers addicted to crack and two million primary schoolchildren return to empty homes every afternoon. But at school, she concluded, they are getting nourishment from teachers who care.
While approaches of the various publicly-funded schools and programmes represented at the conference were diverse, their common aim was to engage children, support them emotionally and give them the desire to get their high school diplomas. Many drew on a variety of approaches, including peer education, mentoring by peers or adults, strong pastoral support, a social and emotional learning syllabus, small classes and community service.
The effectiveness of these and other measures is typified by the example of Westinghouse School in Brooklyn, a vocational school attended by low-achievingstudents. While the average drop-out rate in New York is nearly 22 per cent, Westinghouse loses only 2.1 per cent of its students a year.
Franklin Schargel, a former teacher at the school and author of a book on its turnaround, attributes its success to "the school focusing on who its customers are, asking them and teachers what they need to improve learning and teaching and asking what help they need to do it - and then acting on their comments".