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How to Get a Dropout Back in School—Mama Style!

I sat on the graduation stage and clapped a little louder when his name was called, hoping my enthusiastic cheers would drown out the pesky little voice inside my head that whispered, He's never going to make it.

I knew when Juan (not his real name) graduated from 8th grade that he'd face some serious obstacles in high school. His behavior was disrespectful at times, and he required intense learning support services that his pride would not let him accept in front of his peers.

There were several other kids who had crossed the stage with Juan who worried me.  They had grown increasingly apathetic toward learning, which morphed into a defiant stance toward the teachers and the school rules.

I knew that their high schools of 2,000 or 3,000 kids weren't going to be as forgiving, patient, and relentless as my independent charter school of 450 students.  Some of the things Juan had done in my school earned him a counseling session, a tab out of class, or a restorative justice consequence, but in high school he'd be suspended and maybe even expelled.  

And that's exactly what happened—after attending two different schools in his freshman year.  

This, as Chicago released new data suggesting that its high school graduation rate is the highest it has ever been—65.4 percent. That's up 7.1 percentage points between 2011 and 2013. Could it be, at least in part, because low-income students like Juan are leaving the city? (CPS did close 50 schools in mostly poor neighborhoods for low enrollment last year, right?)

So I tracked down Juan, who had moved to a neighboring suburb. I also tracked down three other kids who had dropped out.  I explained to them that I am no longer the middle school writing or science teacher.  As the new alumni relations manager, my primary job is to make sure all of our graduates are enrolled in high school and on track to graduate.

After a dozen or so calls to Juan's parents, and being stood up twice for meetings with his father, I finally saw progress.  I got Juan's mother on the phone and she agreed to come in for a meeting with the school counselor and me.  Since she doesn't have a car, after the meeting I took her, Juan, and another alum who had dropped out (I'll call him Diego) in my minivan to get the boys enrolled in school.

First, I had to take them to Diego's old high school to get his transcripts.  I knew the boys would have to take a placement exam and go through orientation at their new school, so I stopped by Subway and purchased us lunch. 

After we ate, I drove them to a charter high school that has only 200 students and an accelerated program that would allow the boys to graduate on time. It was actually Diego who had informed me about this school; one of his friends attends it and gave it rave reviews.  After researching the school on my own and talking to one of the counselors, I also felt that it was a good fit for the boys.

I spent about three and a half hours sitting in the school's main office. It was the first day of school and staff was busy enrolling new students, passing out uniforms, and giving welcome-back hugs. I liked what I saw in the staff and felt they would treat Juan and Diego with the intimate concern that my school staff had provided the boys since they were in kindergarten and first grade.

Now that Diego is 17 and has gotten a taste of the "real world" consequences of his poor choices, he was eager to take advantage of this educational second chance.

Juan, not so much.  He kept making cynical comments about how he was a bad kid and suggested that the school couldn't be all that great if it would just accept him off the streets. I asked the school's registrar to address Juan's concern and she told him that her school is not for bad kids.  She said her school is the best because she and the rest of the staff treat every student like their own biological child.

Though I felt a sense of accomplishment for having gotten Juan out of bed and re-enrolled in a high school, I found myself shushing that little pesky voice inside my head again. What if he doesn't do his homework? What if his attitude turns disrespectful? What if he decides the workload is too much and drops out again?

This time, however, I combated my fears with the knowledge that I now have tools that I didn't have when Juan was graduating from 8th grade.  

Not only had I handpicked his high school, but Juan's single-parent mother put me on his emergency contact form.  This action granted me full access to his online grade book, attendance record, and discipline log—in real time.  I am even authorized to attend his report card conferences, in the event his mother or father cannot get off work to attend. 

As far as his education is concerned, I'm Juan's second mama.  Just wait until he sees that side of me!

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