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Mattapan forum tallies high cost of dropouts

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High dropout rates among Boston’s inner-city high school students can prove costly on a number of levels, from missed opportunities and delayed development to actual lost dollars, according to speakers at a Mattapan roundtable held Monday.

Factoring in lower earnings, income and payroll tax contributions, as well as higher Medicaid, Medicare, public assistance and incarceration costs, among other factors, dropouts cost Massachusetts tens of millions of dollars every year, said Kathy Hamilton, a youth policy coordinator with the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC), during the discussion at the new Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library, hosted by the Mattapan Adult Education and Literacy Coalition.

But, Hamilton and her PIC colleagues added, the problem goes beyond dollars and cents, and finding a solution will require a concerted community effort.

They outlined more specific details of the dropout rate problem in a slideshow presentation. Among them: While the city’s dropout rate has decreased over the past three years, the percentage of black and Hispanic students who exit the system is still higher than other ethnic groups.

On the plus side, the rate of high school students who dropped out of Boston Public Schools has seen a steady decline, from a 15-year high of 9.9 percent in the 2005-2006 school year to 8.9 percent in ’06-’07 and 7.6 percent in ’07-’08, according to state Department of Education statistics.

At the same time, however, during the 2007-2008 school year, black (7.4 percent) and Hispanic (10.2 percent) students dropped out at far higher rates than their white (5.3 percent) and Asian (2.5 percent) counterparts.

Hamilton called the dropout problem a “civil rights issue.” One of her colleagues, Marvin Moore, said it is something that community groups can deal with, as long as they maintain engagement with young people.

Moore recounted his own story, which included throwing his father out of the house when he was just 14. After becoming the man of the house, Moore began to veer off of the educational path. He stopped attending school and dropped out when he was 15, but managed to get back on track, returning to school at 17. After a post-graduation year, he went on to attend and graduate from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He said sharing that story has helped him engage the youth in his role as a dropout recovery specialist.

Jermaine Hamilton, 20, an intern with PIC, said that hearing the stories of Moore and others helped him to change the course of his own life.

“They told me their stories, which made it easier for me to tell them my story,” he said.

Jermaine Hamilton dropped out of school when he was 17. By that point, he had attended 13 different public schools, due to a series of moves and disciplinary problems. When he was told that he would have to attend school for three more years to catch up on his studies, he made the decision to drop out.

“At [that] time, I was convinced that school wasn’t for me,” he said.

PIC helped him earn a high school diploma, and he’s now continuing his education at Brandeis. Through his internship at PIC, he shares his story with other young people in the hopes of showing them that staying in school is the surest path to realizing their potential.

Moore said voices like Jermaine Hamilton’s are important in the public discourse required to address dropout-related issues in communities like Mattapan.

“Youth voice is the most powerful thing — it can’t be only adult voices in this discussion,” Moore said. “It usually takes students a while before they realize they want to get back on track with their education.”

Being ready to meet students when they make that realization is one key to reversing the crisis, according to Sheila Azores, headmaster at Boston Adult Technical Academy (BATA) in Roxbury. She said her school primarily serves older students looking to graduate from high school. BATA works with students between the ages of 18 and 22 in a program built around evening classes that often provide a better fit for working students’ lives and schedules.

Increased youth engagement is also critical, said Linda Cabral, headmaster at the Community Academy of Science and Health in Hyde Park.

Cabral said her school has worked to identify those students considered to be at greatest risk of dropping out. School staff divides those students into small, five- or six-person groups and conducts regular one-on-one meetings with them to help keep students on the road to graduation.

“When a student knows someone is taking the extra time to meet with them, it makes a difference,” Cabral said.

The Community Academy’s advisory programs include meeting with student groups for 57-minute time blocks. To make the most of that time, the school’s faculty has been gathering suggestions from students, who have asked to spend the periods on activities ranging from additional gym time and cooking classes and social support groups.

The school has adopted such a multifaceted programming approach, Cabral said, because “I don’t think there is one model that will be the most successful.”

Geralde Gabeau, a youth services provider for Hyde Park-based Youth and Family Enrichment Services (YOFES), said the already difficult task of engaging young people can become even more complex when English is not students’ first language.

YOFES offers additional math and science classes with a Haitian-speaking teacher available, but another dimension to the problem arises outside of the classroom, as many students have parents who do not speak English either.

“For our youth to succeed, we need the support of the parents,” Gabeau said.

Leonie Drummond, an education counselor at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan, said her church provides English language classes. As part of the Mattapan Adult Education and Literacy Partnership, a subset of the larger coalition, the church engages with many young people whose parents cannot speak English because they have remained isolated in their communities for 10 to 15 years. As a result, the students often end up translating for their parents, which can lead to a disconnect between parents and educators.

“Students have become the parents,” Drummond said.

After hearing attendees’ concerns, Lillie Searcy, the literacy partnership’s lead coordinating agent, agreed to schedule another meeting to discuss more concrete ways of addressing dropout-related issues. She also said that city parents should play a more active role in the education of their children.

“This is my second year as a parent of a student in Boston Public Schools,” Searcy said. “Why have we not had any parent meetings?”