Form warns teens of problems faced by school dropouts

Consent waiver adopted by Chicago high schools

March 08, 2004|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CHICAGO - In an effort to curtail truancies and dropouts, Chicago public schools will require students who want to quit to sign a waiver stating that doing so will be hazardous to their futures. Parents must also sign the waiver, which warns that dropping out of school often leads to unemployment, jail and other troubles.

Officials in the country's third-largest school district approved the mandated consent form last week, saying the move is intended to send a wake-up call to at-risk kids in Cook County.

In the past, Chicago public school students could call their school and say they were not returning. The new waiver applies to students ages 16 to 18 and their parents.

Across the country, school dropout rates are a growing concern among educators and employers. People who study the issue say the problem is acute in Chicago and elsewhere, especially among black and Hispanic students, where dropout rates can be 50 percent or higher.

The waiver adopted by Chicago lists a series of likely consequences that parents and students must acknowledge, including being "less likely to find good jobs that pay well, bad jobs that don't pay well, or maybe any jobs."

It says that they will be more likely to get caught up in criminal activity and illegal behaviors, more likely to rely on the state welfare system for their livelihood and more likely to spend time in jail or prison.

District officials say that, while some critics consider the waiver's language to be over-the-top, some at-risk kids would be less likely to react to a softer touch.

"If we do nothing, we condemn them to social failure," said Arne Duncan, chief executive of Chicago public schools. "It is our moral obligation to let kids know that if they do this, there will be devastating consequences. Dropping out is not the answer."

An estimated 13 percent of the district's 435,000 students quit school each year.

But the number may be larger: A recent national education survey found that in several states, including Illinois, leading school districts inflate the number of students who graduate from high school.

The survey - which was done by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy research group based in Washington, and the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University - found that data from Illinois' Waukegan, Carpentersville, Elgin and Rockford school systems, among others, was flawed.

Part of the problem was that some school districts counted all students who left their schools as having transferred elsewhere, regardless of whether there was any proof that the youngsters actually were attending another campus.

The report estimates that, over a four-year period, only 42.1 percent of black students and 50.8 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school in Chicago.

Christopher Swanson, research associate with the Urban Institute, said that nationwide, "We don't devote the time and resources to track our students."

"School systems need to know where their students are, and what happens to them when they're not enrolled in their schools," Swanson said. "If you don't, you won't know if students are being pushed out, or if students are in some sort of need."

School officials in Chicago said the new consent form was not developed in reaction to the survey, but as part of a multi-faceted effort that also includes extended classes for students who need help with math and on-campus counseling with local nonprofit organizations.

Other schools across the country are also trying to increase efforts to keep kids in school.

In Indiana, an education reform plan being considered includes revamping the way children are tracked from grade to grade and raising the minimum age at which students can leave high school.

In Rhode Island, where 16-year-olds must get their parent or guardian's signature before dropping out of school, one district runs a "truancy courts" program, where students who have been skipping school must come before a state magistrate and explain their absences.

In Chicago, principals will be in charge of getting the consent forms signed by the would-be dropouts and their parents.

As of Friday, no schools had handed out the waiver.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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