A detour for dropouts

May 02, 2002|By Robert C. Embry Jr.

THE GENERAL Assembly has recently approved the recommendations of the Thornton Commission, which will mean increased funding for public schools throughout the state -- including $18.7 million more for Baltimore City.

While this sum represents only a 2 percent increase over this year's city schools budget, it is a significant amount of new money, which will grow to $258.6 million in 2008.

The Baltimore City school board now has the difficult choice of deciding how to spend the additional funding. In its most recent plan, the board compiled a long list of pressing, worthy initiatives.

But the list does not include expansion of a dropout-prevention program that claims remarkable cost-effective success: the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP), started at Lake Clifton High School by local activist Robert O. Bonnell Jr. more than 15 years ago.

Few things are clear in education, but there is little doubt that children are better off graduating from high school than dropping out. Baltimore has one of the highest dropout rates in the country, nearly 50 percent.

This problem is concentrated in neighborhood or zoned high schools that have no admission criteria other than passing the eighth grade and residing in the high school's zone. By contrast, the citywide high schools, which are schools of choice with admission standards, such as City, Poly and Western, have relatively low dropout rates.

About 4,000 children enter the zoned high schools in Baltimore City as ninth-grade students each year, and about 1,000 of them graduate. To reduce this tragic dropout rate, the EOP was created in 1986. Essentially, EOP assigns a counselor at $40,000 a year ($50,000 including benefits) to 50 individual ninth-graders; the counselor works with these students for four years to overcome barriers to high school completion.

The cost of EOP's intervention is $1,000 a year per student. To provide this program to every zoned high school student would cost $4 million in the first year for incoming ninth-graders, increasing to $16 million a year when fully phased in over four years. Yet it is hard to imagine a better investment.

Today, EOP deals with 520 students at Lake Clifton/Eastern, 170 students from Southside Academy and 50 students at Edmondson-Westside High School. It claims a graduation rate of 73 percent, compared with the 29 percent rate the city quotes for zoned high schools. At Lake Clifton, an average of 91.7 percent of the 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade EOP students were still enrolled as of the end of last school year.

The program also has benefits over and above increasing the graduation rate. It has reduced teen-age crime (only 0.5 percent of EOP students are in trouble with the law) and increased college attendance (60 percent of EOP students are accepted to college, compared with about 10 percent for non-EOP students). By making students aware of post-secondary-school job training and apprentice opportunities, it can also increase post-graduation employment for those who do not choose college.

Surprisingly, the Baltimore City public school system had never evaluated this program even though it claims a success rate dramatically better than any other dropout prevention program.

A recent major national study found that teen-agers who feel "connected" are more likely to graduate. That is the essence of EOP, connecting children to an adult who makes sure they come to school, do their homework, get extra help if it is needed.

If EOP does what it claims, it should be at the top of the school system's budget list.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, was president of both the Baltimore City and the Maryland boards of education.

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