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WXXI-TV News Special: The Dropout Dilemma

WXXI-TV aired "The Dropout Dilemma," a LIVE Town Hall meeting on the crisis in city schools and the impact it has on the community Thursday, December 15 at 8:00 p.m.

The program focused on how the dropout issue in the Rochester City School District impacts the community as a whole and possible solutions to the problem.

WXXI's Hélène Biandudi and WDKX's Tariq Spence hosted the live program from WXXI's Television Studios. You can watch the full program in the video box below.


As part of our focus on the dropout issue we invited City leaders to write essays in advance of our televised special.

Hon. Thomas S. Richards, Rochester Mayor

There is much debate about the causes and solutions to the problems with our city’s public education system. However there are some basic facts that we can agree on. It is increasingly vital to be educated in order to succeed in our society. We are moving rapidly to a knowledge-based economy in which graduation from high school is a minimum requirement for successful entry into the workforce. This means not just a diploma, but one that carries with it some basic competencies that form the foundation for a lifetime of learning. You aren’t going to achieve a high school diploma, a minimum requirement for success in life, if you don’t show up for school. Whatever issues you have with the quality of education that is provided in our schools, they won’t get better if students aren’t in the classroom. Whether you think the graduation rate is above or below 50%, it is too low. Way too many of our children are failing to show up and dropping out of school. You have to start attacking the problems with our city’s public education system somewhere and, if we can agree on the simple facts stated above, then getting children to show up for school and not dropping out is the place to begin. That is why we strongly support the effort of Superintendent Vargas to address this issue. While the dropout rates for our schools are alarming, the real tragedy does not show up in those statistics, but in the impact on the lives of those who drop out. It is a tragedy that moves from the impact on individuals to a burden on society at large. A disproportionate number of young people arrested and jailed are high school dropouts. Dropouts also experience high rates of teenage pregnancy as well as health and family issues. Without an education they struggle to gain decent employment and can be trapped in a cycle of poverty that too often repeats itself from one generation to the next. Our city will never be all that we aspire it to be, unless we improve the public education that we provide many of our children. That is not an easy task. It will require considerable time, effort and changes in the system; about which we may not yet agree. However, there is a place to start on which we can agree; our young people who belong in school, should be in school.


Malik Evans, Rochester City School Board President:

Drop out of high school and you are less likely to achieve the American Dream and almost certain to be relegated to a struggling class. Every statistic shows that people without a high school diploma will almost certainly live in a life of poverty and create a cycle that will continue with their own children eventually dropping out of high school. In 2009 the average income of a high school dropout was $19,540 compared to $27,380 for someone who finished high school. The numbers are even starker when you compare a college graduate to high school dropout. The drop out issue is a major problem across the country but is particularly more pronounced in large urban school districts like Rochester. Students drop out for a variety of issues from boredom to challenges that originate from home. Dropping out of high school creates a drain on society and robs students of a promising future. I believe we can do three things to prevent students from dropping out. First we must continue to invest and expand efforts in early childhood education. Every indicator on early childhood education shows that it pays off in a major way. Children being involved in pre kindergarten programs are more likely to graduate from high school. Some statistics have stated that every dollar spent on early childhood education results in ten dollars being returned by the time the person reaches twenty five years old. I believe that early childhood education does something very simple in the life of a child, it starts to get them to understand the importance of education, and this experience stays with them for the rest of their life. My goal is to have every three year old in the City of Rochester involved in an early childhood education program. This is something we can all work to make happen. Second every child that enters school should be paired with a mentor. The mentor will work with the child and family to make sure they make it through to graduation and move on to a strong post secondary option. When a person has a mentor they have an individual that can help them navigate the system and provide help and the motivation to make it through the difficult times. Mentorship works and there are models of success that need to be emulated. Lastly we must ensure that schools are innovative and exciting. Students are more likely to stay engaged in school when the school offers a menu of options from sports, arts to trades we must adapt our school curriculums to the needs of students. Education policies at the state and national levels have in many ways stifled creativity and innovation in schools across the country mainly due to the high stakes testing phenomenon. We must all work to change this. There are no easy answers to stemming the drop out problem but I believe that these three concrete steps are ways that we can turn the corner on this serious issue. Increasing the graduation rate and decreasing the drop out rate is a way to make our city and nation more prosperous.


Bolgen Vargas, Rochester City School Interim Superintendent:

Truancy is the first step toward dropping out of school, and every day in the Rochester School District more than 3,000 of our students are absent from school. That process of disengaging from school that ends in dropping out is incredibly harmful both to individuals and to the larger community. In 2010, 1.3 million students across the country failed to graduate with their class. In the City of Rochester, we lost 720 students, or 27% of that class, to dropping out – far, far too many. Every student who drops out makes the unintentional choice to limit his or her potential in life. Dropouts earn about 40% less than peers with a high school education. Even worse, research has shown high school dropouts are 3.5 times as likely as those with diplomas to get arrested, and an astounding 75% of state prison inmates are dropouts. That’s why the Rochester City School District has put a tremendous effort this school year into finding and bringing back to school students who are not regularly attending. Every two weeks, I as the superintendent, along with volunteers we have recruited, have gone to knock on doors, ask questions and make the case for coming to school. The effort has been difficult – some students have moved away without telling us or somehow dropped out of sight. But we’ve managed to bring some students back to school, hopefully setting them back on the path toward regular attendance and graduation. Beyond getting kids to school, we must all play a part in keeping kids in school and on a path toward graduation. Schools, families and the larger community all have a role. Schools have to reach students on emotional, social and cognitive levels. Students have to feel that we care, that school is a safe, welcoming and engaging place to be, and they have to be provided with instruction that is rigorous but also meets them where they are and draws them in. We’re working in Rochester to improve every school in these ways. Part of that effort involves closing schools with low performance and opening new schools with a special academic focus and a fresh start to build a productive, engaging culture. We know that another factor in our domain is retention – holding students back a grade when they haven’t mastered necessary content and skills. Many studies have found that retaining a student increases the likelihood of that student dropping out. Promoting unprepared students isn’t a solution to this problem, so we’re taking a close look at our policies and practices to find ways to catch students up and accelerate their learning. But schools can’t do it alone. The whole community and every family must emphasize the importance to students of staying in school, attending regularly, behaving appropriately and doing homework. Parents or caregivers must monitor their child’s progress in school, stay in contact with teachers and know their child’s friends. Employers and community agencies working with young people must always make it clear that a child’s first job is doing well in school, as modeled by the Hillside Work Scholarship Connection. Beyond the moral imperative to do what we can to give every child a chance at a successful life, it’s in all our interests to get more students graduating from high school, furthering their education or starting a career, and contributing to the vitality of our local workforce and civic community.

Roderick Green, Executive Director, Hillside Work Scholarship Connection

The dropout epidemic is consistently highlighted as a national crisis, impacting our country’s ability to compete in the global market, influencing the way we look at our educational systems, and perhaps most importantly, informing how communities rally for the survival of their most vulnerable citizens – our children. Every day, I have the privilege to serve youth and their families in my work at Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection (HW-SC). Our model relies on community collaboration as a solution to the issue of low graduation rates. With our community-wide approach, we partner with school districts and a host of other local partners to tackle some of the most difficult challenges that students face. By addressing many of the issues that occur outside of the classroom including: poverty, inadequate access to services, challenges at home, and youth unemployment, HW-SC has consistently improved graduation rates for its students and has helped young people gain the skills and confidence they need to become college and career ready for opportunities after high school. HW-SC’s partnership with the Rochester City School District continues to provide proven results, helping city students stay on track to graduation, college and career. Nearly 1 in every 5 students who graduated on time from the 2006 cohort participated in HW-SC through graduation. 64 percent of HW-SC’s students in the Rochester City School District’s Class of 2010 graduated on time as compared to Rochester City School District’s overall graduation rate of 51 percent. According to the 2007 Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency HW-SC Return on Investment Report, for the 351 students whom HW-SC helped earn their high school diplomas in 2010, by age 30, they will have generated an estimated $7.9 million in total savings to our community, from increased wages and earning power, decreased reliance upon social services, housing assistance, food stamps and other forms of public assistance, and costs associated with incarceration. Having a caring youth advocate and mentor in the lives of our young people, coupled with the support from some of our region’s best community partners, can prove to be the difference between success and failure in the lives of students.

"The Dropout Dilemma" is part of the American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen initiative, a national project designed to combat the high school dropout crisis by partnering with public broadcasting stations across the country to educate communities on the dropout problem, rally support, and help coordinate efforts to address the problem. The WXXI American Graduate Community Engagement Project is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and RochesterMentors. To learn more and watch & listen on-demand, visit: