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Mayoral candidates face school students at Roxbury forum

Reducing dropouts, increasing job opportunities for students are the hot topics

Shanice Maxwell and Howard Manly | 8/8/2013, 6 a.m.
The 2013 mayoral candidates offer a thunderous applause following the end of the forum. Candidates discussed the state of Boston Public Schools and high school dropouts. Bobby Shakes

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Mayoral candidate Mike Ross entertains questions from students in the African Community Economic Development of New England organization (ACEDONE).

During last week’s forum at Roxbury Community College, the 12 candidates running to replace Mayor Thomas Menino were asked how they would reduce the number of high school dropouts and increase the number of jobs for those Boston Public Schools students with high school degrees.

As it is now, about 12,000 youth between 16 and 24 fall into that category, and while the number of dropouts has declined over the last six years, those numbers are starting to creep back up.

The answers from the candidates ranged from former state Rep. Charlotte Golar-Ritchie’s pledge to appoint a cabinet-level position dedicated to youth to City Councilor Mike Ross’ promise to improve school lunch.

Quite naturally, Ross received one of the loudest ovations of the night.

If everything was so simple. The problems surrounding the issues of high school dropout rates and underemployed youth are complicated and each of the candidates expressed their desire to close the achievement gaps and increase access to job training for the knowledge-based economy now growing in Boston. Partnering with private corporations was an oft-repeated goal, as was streamlining what was characterized as a bloated Boston Public Schools bureaucracy.

City Councilor Charles Yancey said the city needs to build a new high school while radio talk show host Charles Clemons urged all young people to become involved, register to vote and participate in politics.

But leave it to Bill Walczak, the co-founder of both the Codman Square Community Health Center and the Codman Academy Charter Public School, to hit a metaphysical note. “We have to give young people hope,” he said. “Without hope, young people tend to drop out. We need to create pathways to careers.”

City Councilor Arroyo knows first-hand what happens when a teenager loses hope. One of his brothers had lost hope and dropped out of high school, Arroyo told the crowd of about 200 people. But within a few years, Arroyo’s brother obtained his GED, went to college and is now a third-year student at Loyola Law School. For some students, Arroyo said, “Traditional schools don’t work. … But it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed if you don’t get a high school diploma.”

State Rep. Marty Walsh told his own story about losing hope. He said that his high school grades were not where they needed to be. As a result, he said, he attended a community college, improved his grades, and graduated from Boston College in 2009. “I was not a traditional student,” Walsh said.

John Barros grew up in Roxbury, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants. He excelled in school, attended Dartmouth and worked in Manhattan. But he came back to Roxbury in 2000 to run the Dudley Street Initiative Project as its executive director. Three years ago, he became the first Cape Verdean to serve on the Boston School Committee. “Youth leadership is my priority,” Barros said. “We have an antiquated system of public education so we need to change the system. Students need more voice and they should have a vote on the school committee.”