Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ohio’s dropout academies: Needs More Time?

I’ve been following the charter/voucher debate for a long time, but never knew about “dropout academy” charter schools. These are schools that take kids who have given up on schools, the toughest students who are real discipline problems, and give them a chance to be a contributing member of society. I have been against vouchers and charters for some time, and the data so far backs up what I thought initially, but “dropout academies” might be a solution to a more dramatic social problem, and an idea that should be allowed some time to develop and be improved upon. It’s a problem that I find substantially different from the underperforming student hoping to attend a private school. I may be wrong about this initial feeling, but check out this story from AP out of Ohio:

Two years ago, 16-year-old Jonathan Martinez was a defiant kid from New York City who felt disconnected. He was expecting a son, and he quickly dropped out of school. Fast-forward to Friday, when Martinez, now 18, earned his diploma from Life Skills Center of Columbus Southeast, a privately run academy for high school dropouts. “Honestly, my first thought was: Another high school, just another chance to get kicked out of somewhere. But I saw the way they treat the kids, they don’t just talk to them to find out about school but just to find out what’s going on, to get to know them on a personal level.” While extremely positive about his Life Skills experience, Martinez doubts he would have wound up on the street. He said education has always been a priority for him.

The Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools is seeking to defend charter schools like Life Skills, which suffer from lackluster graduation rates and poor marks for performance. Dropout academies had a 29.9 graduation rate during the 2006-07 school year, compared to 91.4 at public schools and 32.3 percent at charter schools. Schools run by White Hat had a graduation rate of 26.6 percent.

The alliance recently conducted a soon-to-be-released study that shows how much Ohio taxpayers save every time a high school dropout is avoided. An early copy of the study was provided to The Associated Press. The analysis found that a person with a high school education and no college earns an average of $470,000 more over their lifetime than one who drops out of high school. It estimated that Ohio experiences $7.6 billion in lost wages each year because the 749,879 high school dropouts don’t have diplomas. “This report does a good job of showing what a critical role these dropout programs play in the lives of these students and what a practical role they play as educational institutions to the state’s economy,” said William Sims, the alliance’s president and CEO.

Among key findings of the study, conducted by the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center for Education & Research:— High school graduates pay, on average, $564 a year more in taxes than high school dropouts;— High school dropouts receive, on average, $2,240 more than graduates each year in government assistance payments for housing, food stamps, health care, unemployment and disability compensation;— High school dropouts spend more time in prison and jail, costing the state $1,586 more per individual than high school graduates.

It costs Ohio taxpayers $28,500 for every student that graduates from a White Hat school, compared to $17,500 at one of Ohio’s Big 8 urban districts. The charter alliance’s study found that, after subtracting the cost of schools, Ohioans can realize a return of $11.62 for every $1 invested in a high school graduate.

Andy Jewell, a research consultant to the Ohio Education Association, which represents unionized public school teachers, says “The thing that makes it hard to answer is one could say that if one kid makes it through, it’s worth it. I think a lot of people may disagree with that fact. My personal view is that we have a very poorly implemented … charter school program, and I don’t think these dropout recovery charter schools are an exception. The argument is we have these kids who would otherwise be on the street, which may or may not be true.”

Andrew Pasquinilli, an administrator at Life Skills, said “These are the same students that I’m sure people were telling before that they wouldn’t be successful,” he said. “It’s one thing to have people tell you that, it’s another thing to experience the doors shutting on you yourself.”

I’m not sure I like the Ohio Education Association's position in this particular example. If anything, I would prefer an impartial study to take a look at the cost benefits, as opposed to the charter group’s analysis. Again, dropouts may need more attention and expense to turn their lives around than a private school offering an ideological for profit motive and alternative to the public school system.

For now, the jury’s still out.

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