Column

Notes from the White Rhino

One way to decrease the dropout rate in CPS

Javier Suárez

On February 22, Chicago Public Radio and the Better Government Association reported that Chicago Public Schools made significant adjustments to the high school graduation numbers that senior leaders and Mayor Emanuel touted for years. To many of us teaching and working in CPS, this was no surprise. We know much of our work has become a numbers game. The data obsession pushes conversations about changing the data with little or no time to discuss the underlying factors producing the data.

If CPS leaders, school administrators, teachers, and staff spent less time obsessing over data points and instead focused on the underlying issues we can address reasonably, the data would improve by itself and we’d provide more meaningful learning opportunities to our students.

One key element that can drive data improvement is the quality of professional relationships in schools. As adults, we know that when we don’t feel valued or included or safe in our workplace we, if we have the option, usually look for another place of employment. It’s the same for high school students.

We have a responsibility to make school a place where students feel like they belong. Almost anyone who walks into a school building can sense both the strong and the damaged relationships in a school. Our human instinct helps us sense inclusivity; we can also sense tension.

Paramount to this is looking for examples of student voice in our schools. This does not mean that students get to say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, however they want. It means schools demonstrate a commitment to promoting and listening to responsible uses of student voice.

We need to provide opportunities for students to express themselves in multiple formats inside our classes and inside our schools if we want students to help us change the data by feeling motivated to come to school, to learn, to earn good grades, to avoid misconduct, to graduate, and to enroll in some post-secondary option.

If students feel like they do not belong, the data will never improve.

A recent DNAinfo Chicago article explained the passion that some students have for a mariachi program. One program leader articulated how some students come to school because of the program.

But in the current data-obsessed culture, teachers are forced to comply with so much data entry (a typical high school teacher enters about 240 grades to an online grade book each week) that this leaves little time for teachers to build strong, professional relationships through meaningful academic experiences and after school programs.

Years ago, with the support of student leaders, I sponsored the Spanish Club at one Southwest Side neighborhood high school. We hosted after school parties with a DJ for every holiday. We organized field trips and brought in guest speakers.

With other teachers and student leaders at that neighborhood high school, a group of us organized a weekend leadership retreat for sophomores and juniors—groups at high risk of dropping out.

At another school—with the help of students—I sponsored the Literary Magazine Club. (I did not get paid extra for any of this). I haven’t sponsored any after school club in about seven years. There’s no time with today’s emphasis on compliance.

I’m not saying that we need to do away with grade entry or the requirements that help teachers plan and document our work. A teacher’s primary responsibility is high-quality instruction. What I am saying is that we need to remember the human element in what we do.

We cannot change parenting. We cannot solve poverty. We cannot control our students’ lives outside of school. But making sure that our students feel valued in the school setting is what we do have control over. If students feel valued, they’ll be more willing to accept the responsibility of protecting the opportunities they’re given.

At meetings over the last twenty years, I’ve listened for the red flags put up by some colleagues and administrators who carry a deficit-based view of our students. They blame parents. And in some cases we need to. I’ve known “low-income” parents who buy their son a pre-driven BMW to help him get to school—where he does nothing. I’ve known parents who belittle their high-achieving children and tell them explicitly that they are nothing.

But after working at alternative, neighborhood, and selective-enrollment schools mostly on the Southwest Side, these parents are the exception. Still, I know every community is different.

The red flags that always signal poor professional staff-student relationships are raised when a school staff member makes comments that negate his or her lack of responsibility in our students’ education. If we don’t challenge these views, they spread even among highly dedicated staff members because we’re so burned out that it’s easy to accept irrational solutions to complex problems.

We need to create schools where students know and feel that the adults in the building take pride in what we do and value the opportunity to work with the young people who do show up.

We need to celebrate students’ progress. And we need to let students fail.

I’m a strong advocate of the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research’s findings that predict a student’s likelihood of graduating based on freshman year’s grades. In too many instances, however, I’ve learned how this research is misinterpreted so that we no longer allow students the opportunity to learn from short-term failure. In these contexts, so much responsibility falls on the teacher to hunt down the student and provide (what seems like) unending opportunities to earn a passing grade. We fail to teach young people how to save themselves.

Teachers become as ineffective as helicopter parents. If more administrators and teachers allowed for the reasonable short-term failure (failing a test, lowering a grade due to missing assignments, dropping a grade temporarily), we could prevent the long-term failure (intense credit recovery, careless absenteeism, “transferring” but really dropping out).

Students would learn how to save themselves during an academic struggle. Still, we’d need to be sensitive about our approaches, not wave an “I told you so” finger in their faces, so students reflect and grow.

Our district and city leaders fuel an obsession with data that fails to accept that some students’ learning styles simply do not align with a traditional high school setting pushing college for all.

Alternative options for obtaining a high school diploma need to exist as long as they do not short-change our students. These programs provide the flexibility for students who do not find or cannot find fulfillment in a traditional classroom setting—sometimes because of situations bigger than any adult could handle. However, the quality of these programs needs to be consistently checked.

The argument these days seems to always be: “We need to fund neighborhood schools more.” For decades they were funded better than they are now.

But in the eighties when I attended a neighborhood high school and in the mid-nineties when I started teaching, plenty of neighborhood high schools had high drop-out rates or students who got pushed out. Throwing money at the problem won’t automatically solve the drop-out problem.

Many teachers and staff in CPS do believe in our students. We’re simply overwhelmed by the obsession with data and documentation that we lose valuable conversation time by focusing on the quantity of data we must produce, submit, or review.

Or we’re so overwhelmed by the work that we fall into the trap of self-preservation instead of following through with our self-transformation as professionals. By doing this, we limit how much we help students transform themselves.

Teachers and staff need the opportunity to focus on the quality of the professional relationships we attempt to build. Giving teachers time to prepare and deliver meaningful learning opportunities, then reflect on them, not only contributes to good teacher-student relationships, but it also leads to more professionally productive collegial interactions.

So many data meetings begin with the question, “What do you see?” when we look at pie charts and graphs. We need to change the question to, “What do you believe when you see our students in this data?”

The lens we’d then have would help us identify the belief systems we carry or need to carry, the resources we must demand, and the practices we could implement to change the significance and the credibility of the data everyone sees.

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This column was first published on Ray’s blog, The White Rhino (www.chicagonow.com/white-rhino/) on February 22.

Since 1995, Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and is a National Board Certified teacher. He started writing The White Rhino about education and Latino issues in 2011. Ray lives on the Southwest Side. Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay

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