By Andrew Moore
With the launch of three dropout reengagement centers last January, Chicago joined the ranks of cities that are using highly accessible physical locations to connect out-of-school youth and their families with services that enable the youth to obtain a diploma or GED. A review of the first six months of operations shows promise in Chicago's approach, even as it has generated new programming ideas for center staff.
Key aspects of the organization of Chicago's centers draw upon experience from cities around the nation. Chicago Public Schools (CPS), which operates as a city agency, conceived of and developed what it calls the Student Outreach and Reengagement (SOAR) centers, and contracts with a community-based organization to operate each of the three centers. The City of Chicago features the SOAR centers as part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's citywide violence reduction strategy, and the school district draws upon state truancy reduction funding for partial support of the centers.
The centers use several means to locate dropouts. Reengagement specialists - four at each center - receive a list of students who have withdrawn from Chicago Public Schools, or show signs of chronic truancy. The specialists also work with counselors at nearby schools to identify dropouts or truants, and receive ongoing referrals as well.
All returning students undergo an intake assessment designed to identify barriers to school success, which frequently results in referrals to supportive services. A reengagement facilitator reviews the student's transcript to determine graduation needs and develops a graduation plan. Prior to school placement, students must complete a rigorous nine-day "character development" workshop, which includes a service learning project.
If a school placement is not available, the centers provide online credit recovery options for "old and close" students, i.e., those who have almost enough credits to graduate with a diploma. "Old and far" students, through a partnership with the Community College of Chicago, have access to GED instruction. Reengagement specialists meet with each student weekly to ensure they stay on track toward their goals. Counselors meet with each student weekly in a group or individual session. Staff report the most success at this point with "old and close" students who have been out of school for at least one year, because these young people come to the centers highly motivated to obtain a diploma.
Overall, the three centers made initial contact with more than 600 students during the first six months of operation. Of these, one-third (219) completed the character development workshop - and of that group, 154, or 24 percent of the students originally contacted, made a successful transition into a school, online learning, or GED program. Another 53 former dropouts enrolled in a workforce development program that also provided afterschool jobs and mentoring.
Chicago's early experience is propelling CPS staff to experiment with two key changes, which will be implemented this fall. The centers will enter into a new partnership with the Teen Outreach Program to provide additional workshops, service learning opportunities, and stipends. In addition, staff will work with centers to change the nature of initial intake workshops, to make them "less like school" and thus more welcoming.
At another level, the early reengagement experience in Chicago confirms once again that leadership matters. The development of the SOAR centers has taken place at a time of rapid expansion of alternative school options and outreach to dropouts - both with the strong support of CPS' recently appointed CEO and the school board.
To learn more about emerging city efforts to develop dropout reengagement centers - a model that can be found in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, Omaha, Philadelphia, Portland (Ore.), Seattle, and several cities in Colorado and New Jersey, among other places - visit NLC's CitiesSpeak blog or contact Andrew Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 848-6910.