Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fighting Dropout Crisis – Building Public Will

In the article I wrote Friday, title We All Pay a Price for the Dropout Crisis, I provided quotes from some of the leaders who spoke at events held in Chicago this week. The basic message was “High School Drop Outs Cost All of Us, not just the young people who face a “miserable life”.

(This map was created by Learning Point Associates. See this and other maps here.

I’ve attended dozens of events focused on poverty, public education and the dropout crisis. I’ve read all sorts of research on how to make youth programs and schools more effective.

They all have a point where they say “if we had the money” and if we had the “public will” to create policies and funding strategies to support better schools and better workforce-development activities.

But then they don’t go further to say “how do we achieve this?”

That’s what I focus on. I’d like to suggest two strategies in this article, which I’ve written about often in the past.

1)Using maps for accountability, resource distribution and to obtain the 51% of votes needed to enact new legislation. I suggest that leaders and voters could use maps to build understanding where this problem is most severe, build public support, and to hold elected leaders accountable for what they do. The map above shows locations of high drop-out schools in Illinois. They are mostly concentrated in urban areas but they are scattered throughout the state. The map below shows state legislative districts. The third map is from the Tutor/Mentor Program Locator and shows legislative districts in the Chicago area, with overlays showing poorly performing schools, poverty, and locations of existing non-school tutor/mentor programs.

Using maps like this, leaders could determine what districts have high drop out schools. These are districts where elected leaders (and businesses) should be held accountable for what they do to bring resources to the district to combat this problem. The Tutor/Mentor Program Locator map does not show all schools, or have a layer of data showing dropout schools. We could build this if we had the resources. However, such a map may be already available from another sources. If it is, let me know and we can point you to it.

If such a map does not yet exist, then it could be created through a service learning or graduate school project at a local high school or university. I outlined this map-building process in this PDF essay.

Once the map is available on the Internet we can determine how many votes are available from representatives with drop out schools in their districts. If it’s not 51% or more of needed votes, then the next step would be to look at surrounding districts where people and businesses are paying part of the costs of youth not finishing school. We could also look at districts with schools where a large number of youth are not finishing school, but which are not as bad as those in the “high” drop out category.

The goal is to identify enough representatives in the house and senate to get 51 to 60% of the votes needed to pass new legislation.

2) Expand the number of people who “care” enough to vote, volunteer and donate. This is equally important. At Wednesday’s dropout event, Andrea Zopp, President of the Chicago Urban League said “We’re tired. We don’t vote”. We need to get more people into the voting booth.

However, just getting more people in districts with high dropout schools to vote won’t assure 51% of the votes needed to change legislation, unless there are that many legislators representing districts with high drop out schools.

We need to find a way to build empathy and support in more affluent areas where they don’t have a lot of poorly performing schools. We can do that through an effort to increase the number of volunteers who connect with inner city youth in volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs.

We can do that if we focus on transforming the volunteer, not just the youth. In October 2009 I wrote an article titled Transforming Adults Involved In Volunteer-Based Tutor/Mentor Programs

This article was converted into this animation by an intern from the University of Michigan working with one of our one-year fellows from Northwestern University. Then it was converted into a video with the help of a volunteer from the United Kingdom.

The point of this article is that volunteers from many parts of the city and suburbs are connecting with inner city youth in non-school and school based tutor/mentor programs. If those volunteers are well supported and stay involved for multiple years some will build a personal bond with the kids, and an empathy for the problem, and will be willing to do more to help the kids move through school and into careers….if they are well-supported in their programs and encouraged in an on-going public education effort.

If we were to have 100 mentor-rich programs in the Chicago region with 50-100 volunteers each, that could be 5000 to 10,000 volunteers who actively advocate for public and private sector policies that help them in their own efforts to help kids to careers, and help schools and others do more of the work that needs to be done.

If in the other big cities throughout the state there were another 100 programs with 25-100 volunteers involved, that could double the number of potential advocates working to change the number of votes available to support new policies that reduce the dropout rate and help more kids through school and into careers out of poverty and contributing to the tax base and the democracy we cherish.

If we keep volunteers connected to kids and programs in years after they do direct service, the total number of potential voters would be even larger after 10 or 20 years. If we also are showing young people what it takes to help them move from poverty to jobs and careers, young people who graduate from these programs can also become voters and advocates.

This represents an army of not-yet-organized potential!

Take time to review these ideas. Share them with people in your own network. Support the infrastructure that leads to a growing number of volunteers connecting with kids in neighborhoods with high-dropout schools. Build map-based accountability and resource distribution strategies that assure that a full range of birth-to-work programs reach kids in neighborhoods with the highest dropout schools.

Instead of paying $200,000 a year to keep a youth in juvenile detention or paying $50,000 to keep an adult in jail, redirect this money to an education and enrichment system that moves more of these young people to jobs and careers.

It can be done.

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