Robert Balfanz, who directs the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, reported in Saturday’s NY Times that “half of the African-American boys who veer off the path to high school graduation do so in just 660 of more than 12,600 regular and vocational high schools” across the United States. “These 660 schools are typically big high schools that teach only poor kids of color. They are concentrated in 15 states. Many are in major cities, but others are in smaller, decaying industrial cities or in the South, especially in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.”
“This seemingly intractable problem is a national tragedy,” writes Balfanz, “but there is a solution.” The research of Balfanz and his colleagues over the years has identified and documented the problem, and in Stop Holding Us Back he recommends steps society can take to improve significantly the high school graduation rate of African American and Hispanic young men growing up in deep poverty.
Balfanz explains that in each of the schools serving the most vulnerable young men, there are between 50 and 100 youths who demonstrate a need for much greater support. African American and Latino young men are at highest risk between the ages of 11 to 21, at a time when all the institutions that could help them weaken services: “At the very moment they are the most developmentally vulnerable, the response from schools, foster care, the health system and child protective services gets weaker, while the response from the justice system is harsher.”
The most vulnerable young men miss weeks or months of school. Many are suspended repeatedly. By ninth grade almost all are above age for their grade, many need special education, many have work or family responsibilities, and many are chronically absent. They are likely to fail their classes, repeat ninth grade, and subsequently drop out. “This is a highly predictable, almost mechanical course, which is why we call those schools dropout factories.” “These young men are waving their hands early and often to say they need help, but our educational and student-support systems aren’t organized to recognize and respond to their distress signals.”
Balfanz is not a “corporate” reformer. He prescribes neither increasing the number of charter schools nor firing the principal or firing the staff—the so-called reforms being pushed by the federal government these days. His solution is old fashioned. “First, high-poverty secondary schools need to be redesigned with the special problems of their students in mind with a focus on freshman year.” Create an early warning system to identify these students in middle school and hire staff to help them with attendance, behavior and their academic work. Create teams of teachers who work with these students as a group; coach the teachers and school leaders to help them better identify and help these students. Additional adults would “support students who need daily nagging and nurturing to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in sixth and ninth grades.”
The Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center is working with a consortium of national nonprofits that currently serves 30,000 students in 40 middle and high schools nationwide. Early research shows that in a number of schools where results are being tracked the consortium’s programs have reduced chronic absences and suspensions and increased—by more than 50 percent—the number of students passing English and math. By reducing the number of students repeating grades, schools have saved enough money to cover the cost of additional staff.
Balfanz suggests closing opportunity gaps by carefully assessing the needs of the most vulnerable students and training and supporting staff to address the students’ vulnerabilities. This is the kind of responsible school reform that should be a national priority. Please read Balfanz’s very concise and sensible article.