Re-enrolling dropouts is one way to end the cycle of poverty, prison

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Three years ago, Chicago Public Schools student Devonta Roebuck was a sophomore cutting class, hanging out with the wrong crowd and on academic probation. Figuring he would never get his grades up at Kenwood Academy, he dropped out but re-enrolled in an a

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Three years ago, Chicago Public Schools student Devonta Roebuck was a sophomore cutting class, hanging out with the wrong crowd and on academic probation. Figuring he would never get his grades up at Kenwood Academy, he dropped out but re-enrolled in an alternative school called Innovations, where he has thrived.

Today, Devonta, 18, is a senior and plans to visit colleges in Wisconsin over the winter break to explore graphic design programs. “I knew I wasn’t ready to give up on school,” he said.

Devonta is an example of what can happen when society doesn’t give up on students. By investing in his education today, taxpayers avoid the costs associated with not educating him later. Just by graduating from high school, Devonta will substantially reduce the likelihood of ever going to prison and increase his overall lifetime earnings by more than half. He is on course to becoming a contributor, not a drain on tax resources. Many people already know that Chicago has one of the highest dropout rates in the country, but when you think about the cost of not educating our students, it makes you question our values as a society. Why haven’t we gotten more serious about ensuring equal access to a quality education Research shows that our failure to invest in education now has a high price tag down the road.

According to a new report by the Alternative Schools Network, 29 percent of Black male dropouts will end up in prison. It costs an estimated $50,000 a year to house someone in Cook County Jail. But incarceration rates decline substantially for Black males with higher levels of educational attainment, falling to 8 percent for high school graduates and 1 percent for those with an associate’s degree. Adequately funding education today is a better use of tax dollars than paying to keep people locked up in the future. Imagine what we could do if we applied a fraction of those resources to improving failing schools and increasing community-wide efforts to re-enroll dropouts.

More than freedom is at stake.

The economic prospects for high school dropouts aren’t just poor, they are unspeakable. The high school-to-careers pipeline ended with globalization and advances in technology. Today’s highly skilled jobs call for some college coursework, on-the-job training or industry certification. Therefore, dropouts are completely cut off from today’s middle-income skilled labor positions, and there are millions of them across the country. No parent in the world would wish such a future for their child. In Chicago, 58 percent of dropouts earn incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty line. In 2009-2010, for instance, dropouts earned a mean of $13,400 compared to $21, 00 for high school graduates and $32,800 for people with an associate’s degree, according to the report.

There are a lot of reasons why kids drop out of school. Devonta, for instance, said he felt invisible in a world where he clearly was not meeting the expectations. He was a classic case of a kid who had fallen through the cracks. But some students are attending schools that are so bad they question why they should care if no one cared about them.

In Devonta’s case, the system worked the way it is supposed to. He is among 5,500 students served each year by the Alternative Schools Network. About a third of them already have felony convictions.

“No one really tracked him down to see why you aren’t coming to class,” said Michelle Morales, assistant director of the Alternative Schools Network. “Once he transferred to Innovations, he began to realize he needed to get his act together.”

Devonta said he gained support from other students with similar challenges and life stresses. They talked about their problems and encouraged one another. “We really sat down and said, ‘We’re going to be on top of our stuff,’ ” Devonta said. ‘We’re going to get As and Bs and graduate and go to college.’ ”

When I hear success stories like Devonta’s, I know that investing in life’s building blocks – not cellblocks – is the right community investment. Preventing kids from dropping out of school and getting them re-enrolled when they do should lead the public advocacy agenda in 2012. Our kids are looking to us adults for direction. We mustn’t give up on them so easily.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

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