Commentary
12:01 pm
Fri October 14, 2011

Michigan Student Dropout Rates, Schools as Communities

We’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out how to fix our schools, which don’t seem to be working. Some people think the best solution is to essentially abandon the public schools, and turn things over to various sets of for-profit charter schools.

Others are dubious about that, even though it is clear that the public schools aren‘t working for a lot of kids.

Well, I was someplace earlier this week where they are trying something different, and it may be worth thinking about here. I was in Toledo, Ohio, just a long fly ball from the Michigan border.

Toledo‘s economy is the Michigan economy, for all intents and purposes. It is an aging industrial city of about three hundred thousand people, not as desperate at Detroit, but facing many of the same kinds of issues – as does its school system.

A new method of counting revealed recently that more than a third of Toledo Public School students don‘t graduate from high school, which means they are literally without prospects for a future.

Toledo is not alone in this. But the schools, in partnership with the charitable umbrella group United Way, are trying something new.

They are striving to build a network of community partners to keep kids in school. I talked this week with officials from both the schools and the United Way. They told me they think the solution is to make schools the central social focus of the entire neighborhood.

Romules Durant, a young  assistant superintendent and a product of the system, told me the key was  thinking of schools as community hubs, meant to serve not only the needs of  students, but local adults as well. The   plan is to have schools, especially in problematic areas, to offer things like medical and dental services to adults and children alike, along with mental health counseling.

The schools will also offer after-hours activities and educational enrichment programs for the students, and will be, the chief academic officer told me, open evenings and weekends.

This obviously will cost money, and Ohio has been cutting back funding for schools even more vigorously than Michigan has.

The way they are dealing with this in Toledo is to have United Way help identify a nonprofit organization that would provide leadership, funding and some staffing for all this. This is a pilot program, and is just now getting underway in two schools. But it is worth noting that it has the enthusiastic support of both the administration and the Toledo Federation of Teachers, the main faculty union.

This was also inspired in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ongoing anti-dropout initiative, “American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen,“ which is being partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation  and America’s Promise Alliance.

What may be best about Toledo’s Community Hub initiative is the recognition that conventional approaches to education don’t always 

work in the twenty-first century, and that schools need  to be something more than dispensers of one-size-fits all  education.

Toledo officials are hopeful that within a few years, they can boost their graduation rates to ninety percent. If that happens, a lot of Michigan districts ought to be standing in line to copy them.